Small scale farmers and big data

With more data than ever before in human history, nowadays data is king. This is a good thing for businesses, as many companies have incorporated data in their decision making.


However, there are still many areas of business that lack sufficient or relevant data to make informed decisions. For example, most food and drink businesses source raw produce from small-scale farmers, yet they struggle to collect meaningful information throughout their supply chains because of complex supply chain structures, as well as the remote nature of the producers they source from.


Without sufficient or timely data on the producer levels of their supply chains, businesses cannot effectively analyse and mitigate risk - and this can result in serious losses. Coffee rust is a completely preventable crop disease but because it was not identified in 2012 and 2013, millions were lost by coffee companies.


So how can we collect data on the remotest parts of the world’s supply chains to help businesses analyse and mitigate risk effectively?


Case study


Through our SMS service WeFarm, more than 76,000 farmers have shared over 12 million messages about farming and agriculture. These consist mostly of questions and answers that were submitted directly from farmers and can provide insights into common issues that they are facing.


By capturing and storing this information online, WeFarm is building a unique bank of rural agricultural knowledge from farmers without access to Internet. WeFarm then analyses this user-generated content to provide businesses with actionable insights from the ground.


Such data enables companies to monitor seasonal, regular and temporary trends and identify those that worsen over time or during a particular season. They can then mitigate against risks that pose a significant threat to their business.


Making the data work


In order to unearth some potential risks for tea companies we analysed thousands of messages shared between tea farmers in Kenya. Two of the five most discussed topics were climate and pest control. We also found that older farmers are much more likely to grow tea. Amongst our tea farmers there are almost twice as many farmers over 65 years old growing tea than under 25 year olds.


Our findings point towards some important learnings. Firstly, climate change is already impacting farmers and supply chains. New types of pests or increases in pests can be an indication of climate change affecting the ecosystem, so farmers mentioning both pests and climate could suggest that a serious risk is emerging.


Secondly, tea companies could consider an ageing tea growing population as a potential risk. What inspires farmers to farm tea, a notoriously delicate crop? Do young farmers not see a viable future for tea farming? How can businesses make tea farming a more attractive proposition?


Supply chain risk mitigation


When it comes to mitigating risk, tailored and timely information provides a solid foundation in order to take action. By gaining insights into the lives of farmers, businesses can more effectively allocate resources.


For food and drink companies, a lot of risk mitigation can be achieved through working with farmers. Firstly, granting farmers access to useful information to build adaptation strategies can greatly reduce risk. Alternatively, building tailored training can improve farmers’ understanding of their role in sustainable tea production and create sustainable, more robust supply chains. Finally, helping farmers tackle and prevent crop diseases can save entire harvests from being wiped out.


Data from the ground - a new way forward


Technology provides us with many new opportunities in an increasingly complex world. Data from remote supply chains can simplify making important business decisions, especially in analysing and mitigating risks. Ultimately, this will help businesses save money, improve sustainability, and fight some of the biggest challenges of our era.


Amy Barthorpe is Head of Business at WeFarm




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