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Harnessing the Power of Technology

By Project Coordinator of the Global Opportunity Network Emil Kofoed Braunschweig

In the Global Opportunity Report 2016 we asked 5,500 leaders around the world about what drives the pursuit of opportunities. Our findings show that technology is considered to be a key driver of opportunities. However, the data also reveals that it tends to be a weaker driver in lower Human Development Index (HDI) regions, pointing to a need for technology transfers for a number of opportunities to take off. Simply put, to reach its full potential we need to distribute access to technology more evenly across the world. The dissemination of technology poses a threat too, however.

Technological unemployment
In a recent study by the World Economic Forum it is projected that by the year 2020, five million jobs in 15 of the major developed economies will have been lost to automation and technological advances such as robotics. Generally, when automation and the use of technology go up, the need for labourers go down, this is known as technological unemployment and is an old phenomenon. As we move into what some has termed the 4th industrial revolution this problem seems to be as threatening as ever.

The leaders we surveyed pointed to smart farming as the top global opportunity. The growing use of smart farming practices could create a wave of chronic unemployment, as machines make human labourers superfluous. However, some technology initiatives are reversing that trend, empowering farmers through technology as opposed to making them obsolete.

Information inequality
Mfarm is an information tool developed in Kenya that enables smallholders to access pricing information on markets across the country. With this information the farmers can get a fair price for their crops without first lugging their yield across the country. To access Mfarm’s products farmers need no more than a phone that can send SMS. In this way technology is enabling the dissemination of information empowering them to sell at better prices.

In an interview with Mfarm they explained: “The government has been trying to get young people to get back into farming, but there is a knowledge gap. The young people are looking for the how-tos and that is what we provide”, said Judy Kamande from the Mfarm team. They also help make farming cool again, when the new agricultural tool is now a mobile app.

Growing in different seasons increasing profits
Mfarm wants to change how farming is done. Farming has been, and is still largely, rainfed. Crops are grown in the season that is most optimal for growth and thus gives the highest yield and best products. However, highest yield does not necessarily mean the biggest profits. Judy Kamande explains thatwhen all farmers grow tomatoes at the same time, there is a high spike in supply and the market gets flooded. Hence, prices go down. Instead, if farmers shift their growing season just slightly, they can earn a much higher profit with almost the same yield. In fact, Mfarm is now in the process of becoming a more planning-based tool, where farmers will be able to access not just market rates, but also which seeds grow best in their locality based on climate and soil data.

Disrupting the supply chain
The company also provides a pooling-option enabling farmers to bypass the middleman completely by pooling their crops and thereby reach bigger buyers. In this way Mfarm is changing the supply chain to the benefit of smallholders through the use of technology.

Yield increase of 300 percent
Another company utilising technology for impact is SunCulture. They provide a solar-powered drip irrigation system that can increase farmers’ yield with up to 300 percent in Kenya and the neighbouring countries.

As with many high-tech solutions the cost of the initial set up is pretty high. However the increased yield can finance the system in just one growing season according to Samir Ibrahim CEO and co-founder of SunCulture.

Overcoming technological unemployment
Technological unemployment is not a major threat to farming in the region according to SunCulture. Samir Ibrahim explains that as of now the technological development is far from posing a real threat to unemployment, but it could become a problem in the future. He, however, rests assured that as long as their efforts are focused on increasing yield as opposed to productivity employment will not be affected negatively.

For profit impact
Increasing yield using an irrigation system will allow smallholders to move away from substistence farming and become truly commercial. This is a key element in SunCulture’s business model. It is a for profit company, but one that makes its money by making impact. As Ibrahim explains, “farming is one of the sectors, where profits and impact are not mutually exclusive, but actually go hand-in-hand.”

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