Story highlights

More than 70% of the world's food is made by small-hold farmers

Phones and apps can prepare and help when droughts may hit and crops may fail

CNN  — 

What do you do when you see or hear something strange and want to learn more? Perhaps no one around you knows, so you go online or turn to social media.

Within minutes, you can find or crowd-source an answer to your mystery, keeping it from perplexing you any longer.

Now, take that scenario and shift it to a remote farmer, thousands of miles away in Africa, responsible for the food both their family and you will soon eat.

An estimated 70% of the world’s food comes from small, isolated farms that are no bigger, on average, than 2 acres. Until now, people working on these farms relied on word of mouth to solve life’s daily puzzles, but their access to information is being transformed – along with the food they produce.

“It’s about increasing food productivity … better crops, better livestock, so we can double productivity throughout Africa,” businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates said in an interview with CNN.

“We have one-fifth the productivity in Africa that we have in Europe and the United States,” he said.

The green revolution of the 1960s saw agriculture flourish, particularly in Asia, to improve food security globally as populations grew in size, but Africa lagged behind. Gates feels, however, that now is the time to bring the region up. “The same type of productivity increase needs to be done again.”

Certain countries in Africa face regular challenges in terms of their yield, including drought and crop failure that can lead to famine, such as was declared in South Sudan this week.

So through his foundation, Gates and wife Melinda are funding a range of projects using a powerful tool that didn’t exist during the first agricultural revolution: the cell phone.

A social network to feed the world

Though small-hold farmers produce the majority of the food we eat, they are also more vulnerable to factors beyond their control: climate change, failing seeds, volatile markets and infectious crop diseases. But a new peer-to-peer service, known as WeFarm, is using a simple form of social networking to help them stay informed.

“(We’re) helping small-hold farmers across the world access crucial information in a timely fashion,” said Mwinyi Bwika, head of user acquisition at WeFarm in Kenya.

The approach is simple: When a farmer sees something strange about his crops, he sends a message to the local WeFarm number. The question is then processed and sent out to select members of the messaging community. A useful answer could be returned within minutes.

According to WeFarm, 90% of small-hold farmers are now able to access a cell phone, meaning many could be connected globally.

Using WeFarm, farmers can send texts to ask about diseases that might be affecting their crops.

Launched in 2015, the platform is headquartered in London and is being trialed in Kenya, Uganda and Peru. It addresses a key factor forgotten as new technologies inundate the agricultural sector: keeping people informed.

“Information is at the core of everything we do,” Bwika said. “Our farmers have information and knowledge that would benefit other farmers within the network. … (They) learned how to farm from their parents … and their parents learned from their parents. … (We) can tap into this generational knowledge.”

More than 120,000 farmers are connected using the service, and more than 280,000 questions have been answered.

“Text is a far better method” to communicate, said Shailaja Fennell, who coordinates the Global Food Security Initiative at the University of Cambridge but is not involved in the WeFarm program. “The idea of WeFarm is powerful in terms of building a community.”

Fennell added that methods of communicating can vary across cultures and age groups and that these differences would need to be understood by the people intercepting the questions. “Social norms and behaviors vary massively,” she said, but she believes that overall, the idea could make a big difference to farmers in need of knowledge.

“Food has become a powerful industry … but the extension (to provide information) has not grown alongside it,” she said.

New seeds to break tradition

The quest for information among farmers does not stop at sending a text. An approach being used by the Seed Trade Association of Kenya is getting farmers to look outside their comfort zone to improve food production.

A new program, Mbegu Choice (Swahili for “seed choice”), is opening the eyes of small-hold farmers to a new world of seeds, and therefore plants, that produce food year-round and whenever they need it.

“It’s a database of all crops available in Kenya,” said Aline O’Connor, director of the consultancy firm Agri Experience, which developed the program now passed on to the Seed Trade Association.

“There is a lot of food insecurity in Kenya, approximately 42% of Kenyans … and the diversity of their diet is not good,” O’Connor said. “You want to grow a variety of crops.”

The goal of Mbegu Choice is to therefore help farmers choose what plants to grow after describing the conditions of their farmland and their region to get a list of seed varieties that could flourish there.

“We’re trying to get farmers to look at newer seeds,” O’Connor said. “It’s like a software upgrade. They’re better.”

Female farmers learn to use the Mbegu Choice app in Kenya.

The process is again simple: state your county, the ecology and the crop you want. Then choose whether you want an early-growing crop and whether you need it to be drought- or disease-tolerant. Out comes a tailored selection of seeds in either English or Swahili.

The site has seen more than 26,000 users in Kenya – 34,000 globally – and includes all seed varieties available in Kenya, listed at the click of a button. The limit for now is the need for a computer or smartphone.

“A lot of farmers don’t have access to the internet or an app, so we’re a little ahead of ourselves,” O’Connor said.

Fennell agrees that the need to be online is a major limitation of this service in reaching the people who truly need it, but she commends the approach to get people thinking about seed choice.

“This is a very different portal. … It would make sense to make it in the languages of local farmers,” she said. “New seed variety use needs understanding.”

Their use could mean farmers have maize, beans and other varieties growing throughout the year to get their families – and eventual customers – eating a more varied diet.

Using phones and satellites to predict drought

In multiple regions of the world, food supplies are impeded by drought, none more than the Horn of Africa, which has seen droughts occur almost annually for the past 12 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The consequences of drought are numerous, including reduced food and water availability, increased fire risk, insect infestation, disease infection and wind erosion, all further reducing the volumes of food that can be produced.

In most of the countries in the area, more than 25% of the population suffers from hunger and chronic undernourishment.

But researchers at Columbia University are combining satellite data with knowledge on the ground to help at-risk populations and farmers predict – and prepare – ahead of time.

They have been using findings from a study known as SATIDA (Satellite Technologies for Improved Drought Assessment), led by the Vienna University of Technology. This study used satellite data to identify regional drought patterns and trends in partnership with people using smart phones on the ground to explore local knowledge on droughts and activities that may further fuel food insecurity, such as war.

Together, this united global and local information to flag vulnerable populations.

“The goal is to know whether a drought is going on,” said lead researcher Markus Enenkel of Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “But it’s also not always drought that leads to food insecurity; it can be due to volatility,” he said of civil unrest or undernutrition.

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    Though smartphones are still a luxury for many small-hold farmers, community health workers used apps to collect information from the farmers and families at risk to inform the teams at Columbia how best to move forward.

    The team now has two projects stemming from the initial use of satellites and smartphones: one confirming the occurrence of drought so farmers can get insurance payouts when their crops fail and the other enabling biweekly, or monthly, forecasts of climates to help pre-empt changes in food production. “We can give a seasonal summary to help people prepare,” Enenkel said.

    “This is an important idea,” Fennell said. “There is value in drawing big data and linking it to farmers on the ground.”

    She added that the use of community workers is crucial to ensure that the voices of the affected are truly heard. “I would think even more about this community interface,” she said.

    At the core of these programs lies great hope for the role of technology in changing the value of farming, but Fennell admits that each program has its pros and cons.

    “It would be good to have a hybrid across these,” she said. “The world of IT is fantastic, but to truly deliver, the products must be owned and analyzed by the community.”