Colossal challenges lie ahead in the agriculture sector; with an additional 2.3 billion people estimated by 2050, food production must increase by 70%. In previous years and with old techniques, these demands would sound impossible to reach. Now, new technology is revolutionizing the agriculture sector with precision farming. This new process makes it easy for farmers to produce higher yields with less water, fuel and fertilizer. The process involves the constant monitoring of soil, water, vegetation and weather through high-precision positioning systems, satellites and smart sensors in order to provide the perfect growing conditions. However, traditionally it has been expensive to implement and expand to widespread use due to the fact that the majority of the world’s produce is grown in developing countries.
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Despite high demand for farmed produce, many of those employed in agriculture in much of the developing world are still relatively poor. Just 12% of their crops are high-value cash crops suitable for export. Implementing new technology-driven farming techniques is therefore restricted to a small section of the agriculture industry. The World Bank identified agricultural development as a key means of poverty reduction. Technology, if affordable, would therefore make a particularly positive impact.
In Africa, we’ve already seen the emergence of farming apps such as EZ Farm, which uses predictive analytics to advise farmers on useful things such as moisture levels in soil. However, by inputting real sensor driven data on weather, soil types, slope of the land, moisture, heat, chemicals and other conditions, water, fertilizer and pesticides could be applied in more precise quantities specific to crops’ needs to increase productivity.
Groundbreaking firms such as Arable are already leading sensor innovation, developing new means to provide insights into crop health. The core of the cost and challenge, however, comes most often in the transmission. Farming by nature is conducted over enormous areas of land, typically with little access to mobile data. Those early adopters have therefore often been forced to set up their own networks across considerable areas of land — at a very high set-up cost. As a result, to date those without available investment have been unable to benefit from a connected farming environment.
In the areas where networks exist, costs can still be particularly high and issues around connectivity and signal strength will persist. Hype around IIoT services from mobile network operators running on 4G (and later 5G) mobile networks has encouraged some level of uptake. However, these systems are limited in their capabilities in that they are reliant on network efficiencies and costs can also be very high. We’ve all been without a data connection when we should have one, or in areas where traffic is too high to connect. Service issues are almost accepted in the consumer market, but in an industry as essential as agriculture, existing network reliability simply isn’t sustainable to run monitoring equipment on. Furthermore, the cost of running a connected SIM that supports LTE often far exceeds the value of the data. In addition, the processing power required to transmit the data is high and can take up unnecessary amounts of space.
It is clear that a more efficient and affordable means to introduce remote monitoring into farming could make a clear difference to farmers globally. In my view, the ideal technology is a relatively little known one — Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD).
Effectively an internet without the internet and a feature within all cellular networks, from 2G to LTE, USSD provides a means to transmit information in regions where there is little to no mobile data coverage available. Implemented correctly into the agriculture industry, it could provide a number of immediate cost savings and enable remote monitoring at an affordable price point for more farmers.
USSD requires far less signal strength than mobile data, meaning less power demand and therefore allowing devices to last longer in the field. For agriculture, this makes sensors simple to install in and around crops. There is no need for microprocessors and components to communicate the data, in turn reducing costs for manufacturing.
USSD does depend on GSM networks; however, with only 20% of the globe’s population without access to basic mobile services, according to the GSMA, and with this number continuing to shrink, USSD could help to drive adoption of more automated farming in multiple regions.
Making available more efficient and affordable technology to improve agriculture processes would provide the essential catalyst to unlocking farming inefficiencies globally. There is a lot of hype around agritech; despite how clever the predictive analytics application is in the cloud, the data needs to literally come from the field. Given most fields are in low data-coverage areas but are almost always in far-reaching GSM reach, USSD seems like the perfect partner to advancement.
Precision farming is a powerful tool and will help meet the challenges of feeding a growing population in a more sustainable way. However, the process is difficult and costly in areas where network connection in an issue. USSD is an affordable way to solve connectivity issues in developing areas given that it does not require support from mobile networks or governments. It is now up to the agriculture industry to take the next step and expand the smart farm to the rest of the world.
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