Smallholder farmers could help fix global food systems with the right technology. Here’s how

Smallholder farmers are the heart of the global food system, producing over one-third of the food we eat. Yet for many of the world’s 600 million smallholder farmers, farming is no longer a sustainable livelihood. Farmers are leaving their communities to pursue alternative livelihoods, adding to the weight of challenges already facing our food systems, like geopolitical conflicts, after-effects of the pandemic, and worsening climate shocks, putting food security at risk. Already, nearly 10% of the world’s population suffers from hunger, and that figure is on the rise. 

We need to transform our global food systems to be more equitable to smallholder farmers. Farmers lack access to sufficient credit to sustain and grow their business. Technology can provide farmers with access to credit and other financial services, as well as reliable marketplaces and input providers, advisory services, and information.

Yet insufficient digital infrastructure in rural communities hinders smallholder farmers from accessing these technologies. Internet and power is often unreliable and expensive, many farmers lack a digital identity, and access to data and artificial intelligence (AI) solutions is expensive.

As technology-driven companies, Mastercard and Microsoft have developed innovative solutions to support farmers and strengthen global food systems. For example, Farm Pass digitizes agricultural value chains to enable access to credit and create a bigger pool of buyers. Together with local agriculture technology companies and financial institutions, Farm Pass has helped over 2 million smallholder farmers in Africa and India get paid more and faster.

In India, less than half of farmers have access to formal credit, and instead borrow from informal money lenders at interest rates of 35-60%. Many farmers struggle with cash flow, and without access to fair loans, are forced to sell personal possessions to buy seeds at the start of the crop cycle. Farm Pass provides farmers with a digital identity and transaction record, and it connects them to financial institutions for loans at fairer rates when they are most needed.

Microsoft previously developed the Azure FarmBeats platform and has since expanded this work with the recently open-sourced FarmVibes.AI, a set of AI tools to help farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices. These technologies enable data-driven agriculture with the use of sensors, solar-powered whitespace-based internet connectivity, AI, and other tools to support farm productivity, income, and resource optimization. Microsoft also created a chatbot to facilitate communication for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Global food systems account for over a quarter of global GHG emissions and half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, so harnessing technology to support smallholder farmers can also help safeguard nature and advance climate action. For example, data-driven solutions can help farmers grow food with optimal resources including water, fertilizers, and other essential inputs with minimal waste in the supply chains. 

Source: World Economic Forum
Author: Tara Nathan, Ranveer Chandra