As the world population heads toward 9 billion by 2050, there has been much hand-wringing over how to properly feed so many. In the developing world, it turns out mobile phones may be the best hope for growers looking to improve yields, market crops and move out of subsistence-level farming.

By now, most U.S. farmers are well ahead of the game in terms of keeping track of weather, irrigation schedulers, market prices, and other management tools provided by computer technology. But in the deepest backwoods of the developing world, the introduction of the simplest mobile phones is proving to be a phenomenon of great potential.

Among those watching and fostering the spread of agricultural use of mobile phones in southern Asia and Africa is the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Recently, Sonja Vermeulen CCAFS Head of Research, spoke with Farm Press on the developing world’s rapid adoption of technology, how it is being used by farmers and the need for education and infrastructure development. Among her comments:

Some background information...

“As a research group, we can’t take too much credit for what’s going on.

“As you might imagine, there is huge interest from private sector, from government, from research agencies. It’s very much a combined effort by everybody to make progress.

“To give a bit of background, the rate at which access to mobile phones is growing in developing countries is absolutely staggering. About 80 percent of the Indian population now has access. The rate of growth in Africa has gone from about 40 percent in 2008 to about 50 percent in 2010 and, this year, is at about 65 percent. And it will just keep on growing.

“This includes poor people, people in remote villages, people who are illiterate. They all have access directly in their own family or they’ll be able to get one through somebody in their village who runs a phone point, or the like.  

“Mobiles have become the most amazing way for people to access information. It has completely leapfrogged any of the other kinds of ideas around rural electrification or anything else. Mobile phone technology has leaped it all.

“In terms of agriculture and helping farmers to adapt to change and deal with markets, these phones can be used to share all kinds of information. (For example), the meteorological department in India offers a free, weekly forecasting service. They provide all kinds of practical information for farmers such as to share market information.

“Both in India and Indonesia, they have systems where they put out sales prices for fish at different ports along the coast. Fishermen can literally be sitting on their boats, sorting their catch, check the phone, and say ‘okay, X port will give me the best price today.’ And they take the fish there to sell.

“In Kerala, India, it has eliminated 100 percent of waste, of throwaway fish in the port markets. So, the impact of this is really amazing.”

Mobile phones and finance…

“The phones are also used to give people direct opportunities to transfer money. In Kenya, a system called M-PESA is almost like an online banking system.

“You can safely transfer money, or the promise of money, by phone. That means people can pay agricultural labor, they can transfer money to a fertilizer company in town and get a delivery, they can transfer money to relatives.

“That system is growing very rapidly and has spread from Kenya to Tanzania to Zimbabwe, all over Africa.”

Will there be the ability to indentify disease and pests through photographs taken by mobiles?

“I don’t know of any of that being done yet in developing countries.

“There is a program of that sort being run out of an organization called CABI International. They send out ‘plant doctors’ to meet with farmers. At the same time they help farmers diagnose field diseases they’re also keeping track, as climate change happens, of how diseases and pests are spreading around.

“I don’t think they’ve gotten so sophisticated yet that they’re able to automate that on the phones. But it’s a brilliant idea and I’m sure it’s coming.”

Weather

On weather forecasts and mobiles…

“We’re trying to get the seasonal forecasts to farmers in West Africa. In this case, most of the farmers are dryland. The kinds of decisions they need to make are ‘do I plant this week or wait for two or three weeks? There are X days before the rains are expected.’

“First, we’re working to help them improve their seasonal forecasts and, then, getting that information to the farmers.

“Part of the challenge of that isn’t the actual information but how it is communicated. How best to get across to farmers the level of certainty? What do different probabilities mean?

“Traditionally, West African farmers look at things like if the wind has changed direction. They see that as a sign that the rains are about to come. Striation in the clouds is another indicator they use.

“We’ve been doing a series of workshops to help get a better mutual understanding of what the information means, how it can be used, reliability, and so on.”

On the long-term implications and infrastructure…

“When you talk about infrastructure – say, the design of a dam or irrigation project -- you need to consider a timeframe of decades. At the moment, that’s where there are really big gaps in our modeling.

“A lot of climate change predictions for agriculture talk about 100 years in the future. That’s fine because we know there are certain trends.

“But what about 10 to 20 years? That’s somewhere between the large, long-scale trend and the natural variability that happens constantly with the El Nino and that kind of thing.

“That’s very problematic and is the biggest technical challenge at the moment. There’s a very big global program called CORDEX that’s trying to take this bull by the horns. Still, I think it will be about 10 more years before we can give farmers accurate decadal forecasts.”

Has there been such a good response to this sort of thing because of population jumps?

“There is huge market demand for anything that can help small-scale farmers. Think of the proportion of the workforce in developing countries that is still in agriculture. In India it’s about 50 percent even though that country is middle-income and highly technological. In Africa, the proportions are 75 percent, 90 percent working agriculture.

“So, there is a huge demand for anything that can help them.

“Perhaps the biggest difference between farmers in those countries and wealthier countries is the amount of capital available to individuals to implement new technologies and practices.

“That’s why there’s been such success with mobile phones – the actual cost per farmer is pretty cheap. As long as you reach a huge number of them, you can make something that is commercially viable. We’re not just dealing with international aid-financed pilot projects. They scale up to be commercially successful very quickly.

“The money transfer program in Kenya is now fully commercial. It began with a small development grant to the company Safaricom. Now, it’s massive and highly profitable.”

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