Big Data is on call to deliver more food for a growing population


Amid the looming sustainability challenges of our time is how the world will feed 2.5 billion more people in a few decades — even as rising sea levels and warmer temperatures take away some arable land. One answer is bringing Big Data to the rescue.

Farm productivity will need to increase and food waste decrease if 9 billion people are to have enough food to survive. And those productivity gains will be most needed in developing nations in Africa, southern Asia and Latin America where population gains are expected to be the fastest, according to the United Nations.

Yet in developing nations, the food supply comes mostly from the tilling of smallholder farms — farmers with a few acres who generally rely on rainwater as irrigation.

As tech innovation took up agriculture this year — attracting a record $2.06 billion in venture capital investment in 228 ag tech deals during the first half of this year — a plethora of new agtech products emerged.

But very few new agtech tools are for smallholder farmers, especially those without computers, sensors, iPad-equipped tractor — or even electricity, according to AgFunder, which tracks agricultural and tech investment.

Most, according to AgFunder, target data from soil using sensors that sophisticated and well-heeled farmers can use to monitor conditions.

“Many of the options out there today target the very large operations in the U.S., which will likely be much more complex, with more equipment and teams than smaller operations. So how does a technology address the needs of both big and small operations?” wrote AgFunder author, agriculture professor Lauren Manning.

Now, however, a B Corp. that specializes in data intelligence for agriculture, aWhere, is pairing with software development platform company Apigee to offer applications smallholder farmers can get via text messages on their cell phones. It turns out that while smallholder farmers in the developing world often don’t have computers or smartphones, they do have cell phones.

The two companies also are opening up the agriculture and weather data platform to application developers to create other tools for farmers and food companies, targeting smallholder farmers.

“There are 580 million farmers in the world and most of those are smallholder farmers,” said Stewart Collis, founder and CTO of aWhere.

“We are asking smallholder farmers to increase production while also having to increase weather adaptation. They can no longer trust Grandfather’s advice on when to begin planting,” Collis said, because warming climates have changed conditions. And yet smallholder farmers rely on rain as irrigation.

His belief is that if smallholder farmers get timely information on weather forecasts, weather patterns and regional market conditions, they will make better decisions, which in turn will boost their harvest productivity.

So aWhere, his 16-year-old data intelligence firm that collects and analyzes billions of pieces of data around the globe each day, is joining with Apigee, an API software platform company to offer a platform for application development for apps that help smallholders and is releasing its own apps.


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