Digital revolution for smallholders – truth or myth?

SDC learning event,
22 November 2018, SDC, Bern, Switzerland (and streamed online)

Photo: ©MyAgro 


Registration and welcome coffee



Welcome note from SDC

Simon Zbinden, Co-Head of SDC's Global Programme Food Security opens the event by showing how incisive and omnipresent digitalization has become in our everyday life.  In order to reach the 700 million smallholder farmers who will be farming by 2030, including those, who will be producing remotely from urban centres, digital tools will be an important part of a strategy ensuring the production of enough food for a growing population under the new conditions of climate change. 

This is the 1st streamed event of the A+FS network. Questions coming from both face to face and online participants need to be balanced. The event is recorded and each programme part will be available for all those wanting to learn from the event outputs after the meeting.

PDF of Power Point

  (members only, how to join)

Keynote speech by Anushka Ratnayake

Anushka Ratnayake, Founder and CEO of MyAgro recalls that 80% of food is produced by smallholder farmers. MyAgro developed a flexible repayment system after observing that access to cash flow was a priority for farmers and that people were looking for a saving product. In Mali, farmers would thus buy a scratch card and update their account, through which they could for instance order fertilizers and agricultural training. Farmer Mariam joined with an equivalent of 8 US$ investment and now invests 100$. MyAgro started low and reaches now 200'000 users. Since farmers are still using outdated technology, investments in infrastructure is key. Sales help to upscale new technologies. 

The tool also helps farmers to use localized data for their area as well as to monitor the fall army worm, and information about adequate measures could be distributed.  Another lesson was that savings also need to be fun, if a completely digital tool is to be used. The tool needs to be fun in order to be successful. A lot of coaching on the digital tool (human interface) is necessary initially as well. Anushka predicts that there will be a complete change of behaviour from cash to digital. In 10 years from now, customers will be completely different. The 10 year old girl, who observes her mother today will be used to an entirely different way of money transfer. 

In order to bring in youth, it is important to offer packages that correspond to their possibilities and needs. Right now, the smallest package of MyAgro is 30$, the biggest 600$. Both, services and products, must fulfil or exceed the expectations of the consumer demand, otherwise people will not continue to use them. MyAgro calculates a 25% margin because of high fix costs. Anushka also highlights the importance to cooperate at a very early stage with the regulator. For the savings function normal mobile phones are sufficient. For using the apps, smartphones are necessary. Entrepreneurs have them. In Tanzania, e.g. usually one member per farmer household owns a smartphone.

Video of keynote speech (incl. Q&A)

PDF of Power Point

  (members only, how to join)


Market place with four different tools (finance, insurance, market information and digital RAS

Agri-Fin Mobile (Poster)
Selina Haeny, Gender Equality Programme Officer, SDC
Agri-Fin Mobile established a sustainable and scalable demand-driven business model for bundled financial and rural advisory services via mobile phones that allows smallholders access to information about accurate use of financial and rural advisory services. At the same time Agri-Fin Mobile captures knowledge on the used models and products and shares the insights for dissemination and replication.  

ACRE (Poster)
Olga Speckhardt, Head of Global Insurance Solutions, Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture

By 2017, over 1,000,000 farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda took a cumulative insurance over 75 Million USD for a variety of weather risks underwritten by UAP Insurance Kenya, CIC Insurance Group Limited, APA Insurance, Heritage Insurance, UAP Insurance Tanzania and SORAS Insurance Rwanda. Crops insured include maize, sorghum, coffee, sunflower, wheat, cashew nut and potato, with coverage against drought, excess rainfall and storms. The insurance was distributed through four main channels: seed distribution linked to a mobile network operators location service, agribusinesses with outgrower schemes or contracted farmers, lending institutions and savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) providing input loans, and medium-scale professional farmers.

Greenway (English)  (Poster 1, Poster 2)
Yin Yin Phyu, Co-founder & Director of Operations, Greenovator

In 5 years, a group of technical experts created the required content based on agro-ecological zones, crop calendars and seasons in order to assist farmers on a timely basis. The app gives detailed information on farming practices, for example on how to plant and cultivate many different kind of crops, how to deal with postharvest and even preparation issues to make the food on the plate a pleasant experience for the consumer. It also provides from farm to fork techniques for livestock and fish-farming. The app informs farmers about possible drastic changes in climate and weather. Farmers also have access to Q & A provided by specialised technicians that help farmers come up with solutions for their problems. Last but not least the app informs farmers about daily crop market trends.

Plantwise (Poster)
Wade Jenner, Global Director, Plant Health Systems Development (PHSD),
Plantwise has helped establish so far 2'800 plant clinics in 34 countries and reach 18.3 million farmers. 9'200 plant doctors were trained as experts advising farmers. Crop losses are thus reduced and with the food saved many more million people can be fed. Farmers learn how to lose less of what they grow. The knowledge bank collects pest data and provides actionable plant health information. Farmers report that their crop yields and incomes increased after visiting clinics.


10:45-11:15Coffee break

Video and feedback session on the four different tools

(For web-links to the stakeholders who created the tools, and for links to PDFs of posters and short descriptions of the tools go the previous session above) 

Agri-Fin Mobile, Video

The discussion evolved around the branchless banking model part in Indonesia as a private sector partnership. There will be an impact study of Agri-Fin Mobile showing to what degree the private sector in Indonesia took up the model and scaled it up. The local mobile network operator also needs to be convinced of the model. The private sector needs to invest in the significant cost of infrastructure, which is necessary for the approach to work, since connectivity is a basic prerequisite. Mainly in the beginning, the human interface is therefore very important. For the registration of the clients, nine steps are necessary and it is essential to dispose of agents to tackle trust issues of future clients (accompanying "human interface" for the promotion of the digital tool) . Mercy Corps did a lot of the initial training of the agents on cash flow and financial literacy.
Video of the feedback of Selina Hänny on the Agri-Fin Mobile marketplace discussion

ACRE, Video
The insurance products/firms launched by Syngenta Foundation with support of SDC and the Swiss Capacity Building Facility (SCBF) insured two million farmers so far. Digital services for smallholders are extremely important, they however need to work impeccably and they need to be affordable. Digitalization allows to reduce the costs of all insurance products and it is possible to make them part of the package of other products the farmers needs (e.g. scratch-card for the insurance in the seeds bag). Cooperation between stakeholders, e.g. innovators and private sector is therefore very important. Also the regulation of financial solutions in order to avoid cyber risks is very important. Governmental stakeholders from regulation need to be brought on board from day one on. Farmers need to be educated and convinced about de-risking their business by becoming a premium payer. At the moment the farmers pay 60% of the premium. Big insurance companies become interested once there is a critical mass (thus rather millions than Hundreds of thousands).Video of the feedback of Olga Speckhard on the ACRE marketplace discussion

Greenway, Video - Make sure you turn on the English subtitles in youtube which translate the Burmese commentary!
Participants were impressed by the amount of features the app offers to the user. In order to train farmers on the big variety of features, all NGOs and other relevant stakeholders in the region were invited to training of trainers courses. It is them who now train the farmers on the apps' different functions.
The discussion in the market place evolved around the digital coding of contents. For further information just go on the website (see link in the market place session). Yin Yin Phyu is also available for questions.Video of the feedback of Yin Yin Phyu on the Greenway marketplace discussion

Plantwise, Video
Data is a feature of all the tools, which plantwise uses. Wade Jenner decided to discuss mainly the data collection tool. Discussions in his market stand were mainly about data ownership and data access. CABI as an organization doesn't own the data produced in a country, it is the partners who own it. Some of them treat data as open-source, others don't. CABI as a manager has to take the suitable precautions based on the agreements with the partners. Digital tools are in the hands of the responsible bureaus for the rural advisory services. Plant doctors, while giving advice and identifying the disease (insect, fungus, bacteria, virus), record the interaction with the farmer and the type of the disease, either on paper forms (typed later into the database) and sometimes directly into the database via a table computer. Plantwise thus helps partners setting up the system, inserting the updates and training the plant doctors. Key partners are the ministries of agriculture, but also the private sector and NGOs.Video of the feedback of Wade Jenner on the Plantwise marketplace discussion

(For web-links to the stakeholders who created the tools, and for links to PDFs of posters and short descriptions of the tools go the previous session above)



Panel and fishbowl discussion

with Anushka Ratnayake (MyAgro), Olga Speckhardt (Syngenta Foundation), Wolfgang Kinzelbach (ETH), Simon Zbinden (SDC Global Programme Food Security)

Video showing the whole discussion  


This is a summary of the different statements made by panellists and fishbowl visitors:

It highlighted that different tools might still be in their infancy, but financial services work already and will be working even better.

More business cases for digital services and corresponding revenue models need to be created.

It will be important to avoid more "facebook stories"! Responsible data management is necessary. Data safety needs to be warranted. People using and offering data need to be protected against data hijacking. Related issues are the power of information and the danger of fake information or news. The present situation shows that artificial intelligence is already producing information for the internet, but it is still on a very low level of quality. (Big) Data must be anonymous – Switzerland could take a leading role. There is no SDC strategy on digitalization yet, but cooperation on digitalized tools is already happening in many places and the few showcased examples, established with support of SDC, are only a part of what exists. An appropriate education of users, thus mainly an education & sensitization of farmers is necessary: They need to be able to assess the trustworthiness of the tools they are confronted with.

The discussions show that the human interface remains important. Credibility of the tools is fundamental and it is the task of the agents speaking to the users to create trust.
The Private sector should run the business, it is therefore important to clarify roles and responsibilities along the value chain.

There are already more mobile phones than people in the world, even illiterate people have smartphones, and use them in their everyday lives.  For those users, simplicity of the tools is a necessity.

Bundling of different services (financial, market, advisory, insurance etc.) might be important and a market advantage the future.

Support to digitalization can be seen as some kind of subsidy. It might be a good subsidy as long as it is not distorting the market in favour of a few market stakeholders or as it doesn't become exclusive or it promotes environmentally damaging practices.

The role of the government as "the" regulator is very important.

The instruments may bring more transparency into business if information needs to be shared (block-chain), the new systems may thus cope with corruption.

Good partnerships between developers and private sector, membership organizations and government might be key for sustainability and scaling up, but also for an appropriate pricing of the tools and their competitiveness.

In China there will be a concentration of land when land is handed over from one generation to the next, because young people move out of agriculture and sell the land (rights) if they are offered alternative professional opportunities to farming in new economic sectors (industry, services). This is not yet the case in Africa.

Due to bigger farms a more modern agriculture is possible.

Land is owned by the elders, young people only get it through inheritance or when they buy it. A young person might grow much older before inheriting land.

Sometimes there are too many digital tool initiatives simultaneously in the same country (Ethiopia is mentioned), having the effect that scaling up becomes a problem, there coordination might be necessary.


ICT Applied to Groundwater Management in Overpumped Aquifers

Wolfgang Kinzelbach, Institute of Environmental Engineering

Measuring has become much easier and cheaper. The internet of things has arrived in the water sector and sensors are now connected to the internet. Measurements are connected to an analysis and decision support and allow to tackle overexploitation of aquifers, which are a challenge in several big regions of the world.

Classical metering is unreliable and difficult. Nonetheless aquifers need to be strengthened as reservoirs for buffering climate extremes. It is thus necessary to do smart water metering and to work with volume-based water prices. In the project in China every 8 hours 667 wells and pumped amounts are monitored (the data used to approximate the water amounts pumped, the groundwater levels and irrigated water) and the electricity used by these pumps. The figures stemming from this monitoring provide the information whether used water amounts are appropriate or too high and less water should be used. Since 2000 it is forbidden in China to develop new irrigation areas. The project managed to half the decline rate of the water table in the project area. It also contributed to the assignment of water rights and to a water price reform.

Video of presentation

PDF of Power Point

  (members only, how to join)


World café group discussions on potentials and challenges of digitalisation

(Notes of the discussion around 1 of the 4 world café tables)


QUESTION 1: What are the new possibilities of digitized tools?


There are a lot of data that might be provided by or connected to GPS in the future. 

Remote sensing would allow for example monitoring of simple parameters of soil fertility, health via sensors and the generation of recommendations for correction measures to improve the soil health and fertility.

One should not forget the social dimension: It is important to keep the social influence of the tools in mind and bring stakeholders together for an exchange on needs, possible impacts, networking is important. - It is also possible to have focus group discussion via ICT (e.g. ethical use of data, understandable use of data, data ownership)

Land registries: India and Rwanda have announced that they want to realize their land registries with blockchain technologies – in Rwanda and India land legislation have also changed in favour of women being able to own land.

A lot will be possible regarding the visualization of data: In Morondave, Madagaskar, irrigation infrastructure was visualized

The shaping of the human interface of digital agriculture is an opportunity to create interesting and attractive jobs in service provision, e.g. also related to electronic marketplaces or output and harvest protection.


SDC and partners should also support stakeholders in countries to create their apps and tools themselves with digital tools (e.g. a participant recommended the platform ARDUINO




What is still missing to make a real difference for smallholders?

Countries all over the planet (but also in Africa alone) are very different and cultures influence perception and uptake. Shaping the cultural and language interface and adjusting tools to national specificities remain a challenge.

Tools need to be better adapted to the needs of women, girls, youth and other disadvantaged groups (analphabets, remotely - off mobile grid - farming households) in order to be fully inclusive. SDC and partners might facilitate and help to bridge this last mile.

SDC and partners should increase their attention regarding quality assurance of digital tools and help to increase trustworthiness and credibility for their potential users.  SDC could also support the inclusion of the young generation, e.g. by making the young support/coach the elder generation. 


QUESTION 3: What new ideas need to be explored?


SDC and partners should explore what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) means for data ownership of the stakeholders in the set up for a new tool. Compare also with the Charter on the Digitalisation of Swiss Agriculture and Food Production ​and the codes of conduct for open agriculture data. 


Participants ideas turn around possible new tools that show farmers 

  • which land is available for rent
  • how they may pool transport
  • options to share machinery, infrastructure, land
  • their market options for different products

Wrap up

Face to face and online participants had the possibility to share those ideas from the world café table, which they prioritized through #digitalisation depicted on the following three slides

Identified clusters of the prioritized ideas are the following:  

Initial analysis (understanding of coping strategies to know what farmers really need)

Incentive structures (in order to ensure that experts and users provide data)

Governance of the tools (protection of consumers rights - compareGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDRP)   and​and the codes of conduct for open agriculture data ​ and the Charter on the Digitalisation of Swiss Agriculture -  watchdogs for ethical standards, conformity with regulations, solid legal and regulatory framework to support tools)

Inclusion and partnership (make sure that the last mile between tool and farmer is bridged - or the "first" mile seen from a farmer's perspective)! - This implies long term planning with a wide range & complexity of partners including private sectors who needs to invest based on working business models). Sharing models for machinery, transport pooling, bulking, land and even farms (responsibility, management and equipment) offer also a whole new range of models for economic cooperation between farmers.

Easy handling (development of emotionally attractive digital suite of tools to make agriculture attractive in terms of labour and income prospective for all farmers, especially the young ones).

Digital education and online farmer schools, MOOCs for farmers (digital literacy for farmers, women, young people).

Global (but also regional or national?) platforms for "coopetion"  ( = cooperation and competition).


Closing remarks from SDC

Manuel Flury, Co-Head of SDC's Global Programme Food Security appreciates the event as a very stimulating day giving great insights regarding present and future possibilities of the digital revolution.

He perceives the following factors as key for further development of digitalization if farmers and their households are to benefit: Governance of data & contents, the handling of the tools, the creation of effective and successful partnerships for testing, continuous application and promotion.

He also highlights the importance of the human interface: The training and capacity building of the agents and the possibilities of inverse coaching (youth who coaches the elders regarding digitalization and the more experienced in agriculture who advise the young content developers).