Advances in data collection and mass communication have defined the modern era, revolutionizing the ways in which peoples connect and learn from one another. While there are many barriers to the wholescale implementation of data technology in developing countries, organizations and policymakers are helping to grow the economies of countries trapped in the cycle of subsistence farming. These organizations are doing so through the implementation of IoT in agriculture.

IoT and Its Importance in Agriculture

IoT stands for “the Internet of things;” a general idea that refers to the global infrastructure that makes up a society defined by the collection and dissemination of information. With over 6 billion devices online (and growing exponentially) as of 2019, IoT will drive innovation in the 21st century through developments in mass communication and data analysis. Applying these developments to agriculture is important because global food production will have to rise by 70 percent in order to meet the expected demand in 2050. Developing countries will have the most mouths to feed, but also the most potential to grow their yields accordingly. 

How IoT Works in Agriculture

IoT in agriculture depends on innovative sensor technology employed with the goal of streamlining food production. These sensors can provide data on anything from crop health to vehicle maintenance. Typically, sensors are deployed on specific targets according to the farmer’s needs. People can access the data in the sensors wirelessly. Farmers then interpret the data and make manual adjustments as necessary. Depending on the chosen metric and sophistication of the sensor technology, farmers can automate and alter certain processes through companion mobile applications. In a traditional system, a farmer should be able to determine the overall health of their animals, crops, water, and soil through their mobile phone.

Benefits of IoT

IoT allows farmers to keep, track and optimize the countless data points and processes required for efficient agriculture production. Real-time and accurate data allow farmers to optimize inputs and adapt to extenuating circumstances. As a result, production costs decrease and yields increase. Applications and communicative technologies connect and educate communities about useful farming practices. In impoverished areas lacking education and connection, easy-to-follow modules and guidelines are especially helpful to farmers dealing with challenges posed by terrain and situation. The global farming market is expected to grow by 12 percent between 2017-2021, largely due to investment in IoT-related agriculture practices.

Roadblocks of the Digital Divide

Data technology, while cost-effective in the long term, has high upfront costs of capital acquirement and building up digital infrastructure. Obtaining accurate data in real-time depends on reliable connectivity – something lacking in many developing countries. In these areas, people can build an effective digital infrastructure only through outside investment and maintenance. Operating sensors and mobile technology also require a degree of digital literacy. While specific applications are increasingly easier to operate, farmers in developing countries are often disadvantaged by a lack of access to digital tools in education. Even if digital infrastructure and education programs can be successfully implemented, the digital economy opens up other issues of privacy and cybersecurity. Data can be destructive in the wrong hands, so accountability institutions must accompany infrastructure investment.

Bridging the Divide

The potential of IoT in agriculture has sparked the attention of outside organizations, ranging from international institutions to underfunded startups. The World Bank funds many IoT programs and hosts webinars focused on understanding the applications of IoT in agriculture. Mimosa Technology has instituted a hardware lease program to smallholder farmers in Vietnam with the goal of transitioning these farmers to IoT technology. Eruvaka, an Indian startup, uses IoT technology to solve pond management problems for impoverished farmers. Countries have also realized the potential of IoT applications in agriculture. While many developed programs are already transitioning pilot programs to mass production, countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have made meaningful investments in IoT as well. In fact, developing countries are expected to make up around 40 percent of IoT’s market value by the end of the year. 

Technological applications of IoT

As technology improves, IoT applications in farming are expected to move well beyond sensors and mobile apps. AI and machine-learning technologies will make the automation of tasks significantly easier. Combined with advances in robotics, automated precision planting could become commercially feasible. Advances in drone technology will allow for the real-time mapping of crops in order to gauge land condition and yield potential. Monitoring this technology will also incentivize sustainable farming practices, such as soil preservation and tracking of vulnerable animal populations. Specialized communication tech will make the collection and dissemination of information easier than ever before, connecting previously isolated communities all over the world. 

The meeting of agriculture and information technology can be a game-changer when attached to sufficient funding and well-intentioned policy. IoT agricultural technology can break the cycle of subsistence agriculture that prevents developing countries from growing economically. Breaking this cycle will contribute to ending global poverty while growing and furthering the global food market.

– Matthew Compan
Photo: Flickr