10 innovations that could have a huge impact on smallholder farming by 2030

The IFA2030 fertilizer industry strategic review exercise is imagining what the world might be like in 12 years’ time. By 2030 there will be 750 million smallholder farming families. With nearly an extra 1 billion mouths to feed, smallholder farms will play a vital role in feeding the growing global population.

While some progress has been made in recent years, smallholder productivity supported by fertilizer use remains extremely low, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Thankfully, a range of new and upcoming techniques and technologies should help radically improve smallholder farmers’ yields (and lives).

Drones

Inexpensive drones should give smallholder farmers a much better overview of their crops, offer precise variable rate nitrogen prescriptions for each area of a field, spot disease and pests, detect water stress and show field slope and drainage. Larger drones could also be used to deliver farm inputs such as fertilizers to remote areas, apply them precisely to crops and transport produce to access larger markets, ensuring the best rates.

Sensors

A diverse mix of cheap on-farm sensors should help smallholders maximize their yields and improve soil health. Portable soil scanners can already show soil nutrient content in a matter of minutes and current sensor technology can measure soil humidity and temperature, as well as plant water uptake. In the near future, cheap sensors should be able to monitor many different aspects of plant and soil health and nutrient needs.

Solar Power

Nearly two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to energy today. Increasingly efficient, affordable and sustainable solar power will enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers. From reducing running and repair costs for generators to providing affordable tools, harnessing the power of the sun will help smallholder farmers grow more on their land.

Automatation

Tomorrow’s smallholder farms will likely have a lot more workers than they currently do, but they won’t be human. Automated planting, weeding, pest control, fertilizer application, pruning and harvesting will have a huge impact, allowing smallholders to increase the amount of land they farm, where possible, and their yields while reducing time spent working on-farm.

Irrigation

Two-thirds of the global population currently live under conditions of severe water scarcity for at least one month a year. With climate change making seasonal rains more erratic and droughts more common, irrigation will be increasingly important to ensure access to water for smallholder farmers. Water storage combined with efficient pumping and micro-irrigation should allow smallholders to grow crops much more regularly and reliably.

The Internet

More than 4 billion people still aren’t connected to the web, according to the World Economic Forum. With the vast majority of smallholder farmers currently on the wrong side of the digital divide, access to the internet, through widely available smartphones, would allow smallholder farmers to improve and transfer their agronomic knowledge, anticipate weather and access current market prices to ensure they can grow and sell produce better.

Apps

Already widely used on large commercial farms; apps, run on affordable smartphones, should help smallholders with many different aspects of farm management. Using weather, soil and crop growth data, apps will recommend exactly what fertilizer to apply, where, when and how for maximum yields at minimum cost, while also monitoring diseases and pests.

Mobile Payments

"By 2030, 2 billion people who don't have a bank account today will be storing money and making payment with their phones," Bill Gates predicted in his 2015 Annual Letter. Pioneering mobile payment services like Kenya’s M-Pesa have already allowed many smallholder farmers to access banking and financial services, while similar systems have also been successfully used for distributing farm input subsidies. Near 100% global mobile phone penetration by 2030 will bring many more smallholder farmers into the formal economy, helping them to access credit, fertilizers and farming tools.

Artificial Intelligence

By processing the growing data created by connected sensors, smart devices, satellites and mobile phones, artificial intelligence will be able to develop a range of local recommendations for plants nutrients and farming practices that will benefit smallholder farmers. The systems should also be able to predict and prevent upcoming problems such as infestations or crop failures.

4R Nutrient Stewardship

In the face of increasing environmental change, and growing soil degradation, balanced fertilization will be ever more important for farmers to feed the world and restore soil health while adapting to and mitigating climate change. Access to fertilizers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, combined with their responsible management using 4R Nutrient Stewardship: the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place, will be key for smallholder farmers to increase their crop yields while protecting the environment.