One click away – Reaching 300 million smallholders with Digital Climate Advisory Services

Published: 26 Jan 2021
Author: Nicoletta Pavese
Type: Insight

What do a cocoa farmer in Cote d’Ivoire, a rice farmer in Indonesia and a sugarcane farmer in India have in common? Despite the miles separating them, each of these individual smallholders, and the rural communities in which they live, are facing the same challenge: climate change.

Studies estimate that around 30% of global crop yields will be at risk from climate change by 2050, while global food demand will increase by 50% in the same timeframe (Porter et al. 2014). Smallholders across the globe are responsible for much of the world’s food security, and they are also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and associated socio-economic shocks.

It is therefore a priority to increase the resilience of smallholder farmers and strengthen their ability to adapt, to help ensure sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems globally, able to meet a growing food demand within planetary boundaries.

Digital advisories are emerging as a promising solution:

Investment is driving the development and implementation of a variety of approaches designed for smallholders around the world, from climate resistant varieties to post-harvest technologies and innovative financial products, with mixed results. Amongst these efforts, the use of Digital Climate Advisory Services (DCAS) has emerged as a promising and multi-functional solution area, expanding rapidly, and reaching more farmers through ever more sophisticated technologies.

DCAS refer to the provision of climate-related advisories and services to farmers via digital tools and platforms. These include online portals, mobile applications, more traditional, digitally enabled services like radio and interactive voice response systems. The type of advisory can range from meteorological data and crop cycle alerts, to bundled services including access to inputs and good agricultural practices, market information, insurance, and finance.

DCAS offer significant opportunities to build resilience and improve the livelihood of smallholder agricultural producers. In Sub Saharan Africa for example, a recent study shows that DCAS bundled with other services could increase smallholders’ income by 57% and productivity by 168% (CTA & Dahlberg Advisors, 2019). In India, agro-met advisory services have the potential to yield benefits worth over USD $430 billion for the country’s 90 million agricultural households (ICRISAT, 2020). Increasing mobile phone penetration and a booming ag-tech start-up scene are encouraging an exponential growth of these tools and platforms in these regions, and globally.

Challenges to scale DCAS:

However, access to DCAS is still limited and the ability to scale and effectiveness of existing approaches is patchy. Over 300 million smallholders globally still have no access to effective DCAS. This is due to a number of factors, including variability in digital readiness across rural populations, and the lack of basic digital infrastructure that may drive and support DCAS.  A lack of standards and regulations in most geographies also means that the increased availability of DCAS hasn’t necessarily translated to quality, eroding farmers’ trust and limiting uptake and impact. Where DCAS are available, farmers may not be able or willing to pay, with increased tensions between financial sustainability and the provision of these services as a public good.

To address these challenges, and meet the needs of 300 million smallholders, DCAS need  more public and private sector investment  driven by principles such as data quality, equitable access and scalability and enabled by solid public-private partnerships, shared accountability and transparency.

Investing in DCAS helps address food systems issues like productivity, soil health, nature loss and rural poverty and represents a considerable opportunity for companies along the food value chain and beyond.

The business case for DCAS:

According to a 2019 FAO reportthe adoption of digital technologies in agriculture and rural areas could generate a value of USD $800 billion by 2050. DCAS designed with end users in mind and tailored to the specific conditions of the geographies they are targeting, offer the most significant chance of commercial sustainability for the delivery of advice to producers, increasing scale, customization and efficiency. Examples include delivering DCAS alongside in-person advisory approaches where there is low digital literacy, or bundling DCAS with other services to decrease the cost. DCAS can also improve the availability of farm level data and insights, supporting the innovation pipeline for sustainable agriculture and giving smallholder farmers more opportunities for finance, insurance and profits.

Business should pursue individual and collective action in support of DCAS, engaging farmers and farmers’ collectives in its design, as well as leveraging start-ups and local micro, small and medium enterprises to address challenges like last mile access. In contexts where there is not yet a clear business case for private investment, business should join forces with the public sector to attract donors and develop policy recommendations to help create enabling environments for DCAS.

Through its Farm of the Future workstream and its Food and Nature program area, WBCSD will continue to explore positive private sector contributions to DCAS and provide platforms for sharing knowledge, as well as identify synergies and further analyze the business case for business, farmers and policy makers.

Throughout 2020, WBCSD has been working with the Global Commission on Adaptation to develop an Investment Blueprint for DCAS with the goal to increase the resilience of 300 million smallholders by 2030. The document will be published in Spring 2021. In the meanwhile, read our insights on challenges and opportunities for private sector in DCAS by clicking here

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