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August 02, 2015

Farming by cellphone remote control: Fascinating, but is it realistic?

The widespread and fairly sudden reach of mobile communications to even the remotest areas of most parts of Africa have revolutionised life in many ways, opening up many new possibilities that would have been unthinkable as recently as 20 years ago.

As the ability of cellphones to bridge distance and communication gaps have come to be taken for granted, more attention is being to using the technology in more targeted, practical ways. Just one successful example is how cellphone telephony has exposed tens of millions of  people to money transfer and banking services that were previously largely out of their convenient reach.

Another purpose of cellphone to which there has been much attention paid in recent years has been in delivering useful market and technical information to farmers in scattered, often remote areas. It is fairly early days in these efforts, part there are some reports of success in delivering information to farmers by cellphone on matters like market trends and prices, weather or other information. Many of these efforts have been based on inexpensive short message services (SMS) or some kind of simple subscription model.

Now come reports of more ambitious efforts, such as "telephone farmers,"...making use of a growing number of technologies and platforms to help them choose and manage their crops more efficiently" from a distance through availing on-farm information by smartphone.

Apparently, 'cloud farming' is a new phenomenon in which mobile devices are giving a growing number of Kenyan farmers the ability to do 'keep an eye on their out-of-town farms while working in the city.'

An interesting report says 'IBM's EZ-Farm project - currently being trialled in Kenya - is exploring how sophisticated data analytics can help farmers keep in touch with what is really happening on their out-of-town smallholdings. Sensors strategically placed around the farm monitor water tank levels, the amount of moisture in the soil, as well as the performance of irrigation equipment.'

No doubt there will be interesting and  perhaps even some practically useful lessons from these fascinating experiments delving into how to make widely available cellphones more useful. However, one skeptics experience tells him that for success in particularly small to medium scale farming, there are few or no substitutes for a physical experience!

The nature of small to medium scale farming is such that if you need a cellphone app to 'indicate whether crops are being watered too much or too little,' then your farming operation is likely in trouble on many other counts not related to how much water is or isn't in the soil. Small scale farming, especially if it is to be commercially viable, is generally a very hands-on enterprise by its very nature.

But hey, at the very least this new technology will give urban cell phone farmers with weekend plots in the rural areas some new app on  their smartphones to show off and boast about to their drinking buddies in the capital city.

Different context from Kenya perhaps, but in Zimbabwe the expression 'cellphone farmer' is not used admiringly to refer to a town-based farmer who has the details of the goings-on of his distant 'farm or plot at his finger-tips (or rather, on on his/her cellphone's screen), but is rather used derisively to distant, clueless and uninvolved salaried urbanites who think that claiming to be also a farmer (in their spare) time is cute and 'prestigious.' At best they will drive out to their farms on weekends or month ends to barbeque some meat and enjoy cold beers before driving back to the capital on Sunday afternoon, refreshed for the new week from their strenuous 'farming activities.'

While dumb phones are now available in virtually every outpost, the availability of smart phones, while now growing exponentially, is still much more limited. Part of this may may be data networks that are still far behind voice and SMS networks, but part of it is also that smartphones still cost considerably more than dumb phones.

But seriously though, there will likely eventually be some actually practically useful, real-world innovations from these experiments. As the scientist in charge says, "we're planning for the future."

African Agriculture

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