Digital Farmer Profiles: Re-imagining Smallholder Agriculture
iFarmer`s ambitious plan of creating digital and traceable identity of smallholder farmers.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 3 billion people — almost half of the world’s population — live in rural areas, and roughly 2.5 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods1. Smallholder farmers form the backbone of agricultural production in most developing countries and sell nearly 70per cent of the food consumed worldwide. However, the same farmers also represent the majority of people living in absolute poverty and account for half of the world’s undernourished people.
In Bangladesh Smallholder farmers are the ones who own or cultivate between 0.05–2.49 acres of land and following that definition around 84% of the farmers in Bangladesh are smallholders. Every country has their way of defining farmers according to their land size. And that becomes the identity of the farmers. For decades, development projects, NGOs, Researchers and private sector has put all farmers in one large bucket called “smallholder”.
Most smallholders in most developing countries are probably land constrained, poorly connected to the market and most vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks. However not all smallholders are equally land constrained, market oriented and vulnerable to risk. So to be able to cater to the farmers need, build a business relationship with them and to serve them better with products and services, we need to recognize the differences across and within the smallholder farmers. But defining a smallholder farmer is not easy; farmers are not homogeneous.
As mobile technology use increases and improves in rural areas, the paradigm is also shifting for how smallholder farmers could be profiled, how their needs are understood and met, how the impact of agricultural services is measured, how farmer data is shared, and how a global body of knowledge can be built by drawing on typically siloed expertise and data. But this is easier said than done.
Key considerations for building the digital identity of the farmers
- Identity needs vary by farmer type: From our experience at iFarmer, on partnering with smallholders, we understand that a farmer’s (digital) identity can be influenced by a wide range of factors, such as their social capital, the types of crops they grow, their age or the degree to which they are motivated to improve their farm. For example, many farmers are content with their current levels of productivity, were risk-averse, and were happy to maintain the ‘status quo’ with their farm ; but there are also farmers who are ambitious, entrepreneurial and some even digitally-savvy. Similarly, while some farmers were often worried about meeting their day-to-day financial needs through farming activities, others were upbeat and enjoyed comfortable, predictable incomes and often have multiple sources of income.
- Farm economy could be complex: The economic activities of smallholder farmers are complex, but rarely documented. As I have already stated above that smallholder farmers are not a homogeneous group, and even those farmers with adequate production levels often cannot provide evidence of their economic ability or activity. Without a formal way to document and record their economic activities, farmers cannot demonstrate revenue from sales over a certain period or provide documentation regarding the value of their required inputs or their asset base. Even when farmers do maintain records, such as physical receipts for the sale of crops to formal agribusinesses or cooperatives, there is often no standardised way of recording and presenting this information.
- Foundational vs Functional identities: The World Bank estimates that one billion people worldwide do not have an official form of identification. The ability to prove that you are who you say you are is vital to social, political and economic inclusion, and enables greater access to basic services, such as finance, healthcare and education. It is important to remember that identities can take various forms, they can generally be categorised into two types: foundational and functional identities. Foundational identities tend to be universally available and used for a variety of purposes. Foundational documents are often provided by governments for citizens to prove their identity, such as the National identity card or Passports or birth certificate. In contrast, functional identities tend to be created with a specific purpose in mind and are provided by a variety of entities. These types of documents could include a voter card, health record or bank card. Functional identities differ from foundational identities in that both government and non-government players (such as NGOs and private organisations) can offer them. Given these definitions, an “economic identity” would therefore be considered a form of functional identity, as its purpose is to enable access to a specific set of services (such as access to credit, insurance and savings products).
- Digital identities must build on physical relationships: The relationships farmers have with their community, agri input sellers/buyer, local government and other service providers has a critical influence on their behaviour and attitudes towards digital identity. When asked to rank the people and institutions that they feel close to, most farmers ranked other farmers, agri input sellers and buyers on the same level as their family, friends and neighbors. This is an important consideration in profiling the farmers and creating a traceable and verifiable digital identity.
What has iFarmer done so far?
iFarmer currently has 5000 farmers in its network. At the moment we are building the following data attributes of these farmers from various sources.
For iFarmer the first step towards digital profile or identify of smallholder farmers is to build an economic identity of the farmers which rely on multiple data points. At this moment our main objective is to build an efficient and accurate data collection and management process. Although we are collecting a set of data but it is difficult to use this information to provide an accurate and holistic economic appraisal of the farmers we work with. This is because smallholder farmers regularly engage with multiple actors across the agricultural sector and their data is captured and stored in various places.
Our ambition is to create functional digital identities of smallholder farmers that have the potential to help farmers build pride in their profession, feel more informed, connect to new markets or buyers, access digital financial service and reduce their financial risk. In the long-term, this will help lead to improved farming practices, increased digital and financial inclusion, and higher productivity.