There was a time when traditional ecological knowledge was enough. When ancestral wisdom guided communities to sense the moods of the rains, the temperaments of the winds, the hidden messages of the clouds. Through these interpretations of nature, farming communities could foretell times of planting, times of abundance and times of harvest.
These times are decidedly gone. An atmosphere saturated by carbon has done more than uproot physical ecosystems, halt livelihoods and abruptly displace whole communities, leaving only a memory of something familiar; it has disrupted and stolen from traditional ecological knowledge systems.
In this era of climate emergency, what is left when traditional knowledge is no longer enough?
Digital agriculture–complete with its repertoire of climate services, agricultural advisories and mobile technologies, weather forecasts and agricultural data infrastructure, sensors and spatial modelling–is emerging to bolster these disrupted knowledge systems. The alliance of digital technologies and agricultural systems is a promising response to the struggles of rising populations, growing food demand and ecological crisis by transforming food systems, harnessing resource efficiency, building sustainability and amplifying productivity.
A home for digital systems within the agricultural sphere can take many forms. It can involve early warning systems to identify livestock health or disease; seasonal climate forecasts delivered to farmers’ mobile phones; real-time mapping of market demand for specific agricultural commodities; and the list goes on. The coupling of such digital insights to the realm of soil and sun holds many rewards: analyzing the upcoming seasons, exploring ideal times to plant, honing in on preferred crops, localizing promising markets, identifying how to heal damaged soil, forewarning climate extremes and pest outbreaks. These digital approaches help to shield farming livelihoods from the deluge of uncertainties brought forth by the climate crisis, as well as to boost productivity, adaptive capacity and market connectivity.
Grounding digital agriculture in Ethiopia
Amid Ethiopia’s exponential population climb and the strikes of the climate emergency with erratic rains, dry spells, sharp floods and failed crops, the country launched a digital agro-climate advisory platform, called EDACaP, to put resilience at the centre of agricultural livelihoods.
A team effort led by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) and the National Meteorological Agency (NMA), alongside numerous research centers and programs: the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), with support from the Agricultural Growth Program (AGP), the EDACaP has come to life.
“From paper, we’ve gone digital,” said Dr Eyasu Abreha, Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, celebrating the launch of the EDACaP.
The advisory platform is composed of four complementary elements: an agro-climate database hub, climate modelling, crop modelling and a dissemination platform. EDACaP combines 1) geographical data, including geospatial information on site characteristics and agroecological zones; 2) climate data, both historical and projections from scenario analysis; 3) weather data, using seasonal and sub-seasonal data; 4) soil data, including physical, biological and chemical characteristics; 5) crop data and varieties, currently focused primarily on cereals but soon expanding to legumes, stimulants and vegetables; and 6) agronomic information, mainly concentrated on management data.
This data is interpreted into yield forecasts, agro-climate advisories and climate scenarios that are targeted to specific geographies and agricultural value chains, and disseminated to farmers through extension training, mobile technologies, early warning systems and multimedia. These translations of complex science to smallholder farmers improve decision making on diverse elements including the selection of crop fields and varieties, timing for planting and harvesting, ideal irrigation approaches, as well as measures to prevent pests and diseases.
“The farmer is the biggest decision-maker,” said Dr Kindie Tesfaye, Senior Scientist at CIMMYT. As a country whose agricultural systems are highly dependent on rainfall, these digital interventions will serve as key decision support tools to manage climate risk and bolster the adaptive capacity of Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers. “Our effort must be in creating resilient agricultural systems that are not shocked by climate risks,” said Dr Diriba Geleti, Deputy Director-General for Research at EIAR.
For these digital transformations of food systems to be possible, many hurdles must be overcome, the most pressing being ensuring digital systems do not exacerbate inequalities, as well as overcoming capital constraints, limited technologies, infrastructure gaps in commercialization, and building regulatory frameworks, digital access and literacy, digital innovation and entrepreneurship models.
EDACaP’s pilot phase has already reached 82,000 smallholder farmers across Ethiopia and is expected to reach 16.7 million farmers once scaled through the Ministry of Agriculture and the country’s more than 60,000 agricultural extension agents.
EDACaP is not alone in the push to facilitate Ethiopia’s food systems to go hand in hand with digital approaches. YeZaRe, developed by the social enterprise Echnoserve, is a digital mobile system that provides weather and market data to smallholder farmers, as well as connects these farmers to markets to ensure income for their livelihoods and reduce losses at the hands of middlemen. Currently, there are more than 33,000 registered users, ranging from farmers to cooperatives to extension workers to wholesalers. By connecting the dots on climate data and market information, YeZaRe can identify key markets for smallholder farmers to boost both their livelihood incomes as well as their climate resilience.
Taking digital agriculture internationally
Around the world, digital agriculture is gaining traction. In the words of Dhanush Dinesh, Global Policy Engagement Manager at CCAFS, and Ana María Loboguerrero, Head of Global Policy Research at CCAFS, “digitization of agriculture can play a key role in enabling the agricultural sector to leapfrog traditional development pathways. It can also enable farmers to make their livelihoods profitable and resilient to climate change impacts.”
According to these scientists, there are six key elements to making such a transformation possible: boosting digital connectivity, sustaining tailored data services to smallholder farmers, making a strong business case, building enabling environments, scaling digital models and finally evaluating progress in an ongoing manner.
If these obstacles can be overcome, “digital systems can be a great equalizer,” said Dr Dawit Solomon, East Africa Regional Program Leader of CCAFS.
Seble Samuel is a climate justice advocate, works as the East Africa Communications and Knowledge Management Officer for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).