Field visit Soil Cares & Agrics- The importance of technology for rural development

Blog Josien Sluijs, Director NpM Platform for Inclusive Finance

16 August 2016

The lack of good financial services is one of the largest obstacles for farmers to improve and increase their productivity. The question is how to reduce the risk of agricultural activities so that financial institutions are prepared to provide loans to farmers. That topic was discussed July 21 – 28, as the Netherlands Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM, where I work as director), AgriProFocus and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP) organized three expert meetings in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya to discuss their research “Finance for Smallholders: Opportunities for risk management by linking financial institutions and producer organizations.”

In the discussion on farming related risks, it goes without saying that risks related to crop and how the crop is nurtured require specific attention. Good inputs, the right amount of fertilizers and training on how to plant, check on the crops till harvest, and crop rotation are essential for the quality and quantity that is produced. As I described in former blogs, farmers organisations such as cooperatives, need a constant supply in order to meet their contracts with off takers.

I have visited two organisations that have made soil their main business. The first company I visited is Soil Cares. They have developed hand held devices that measure soil quality. In former days, if farmers wanted to know the constitution of the soil of their land, they had soil samples taken and it took a number of days, in some cases weeks, before the analysis was returned to them. The analysis allows them to buy fertilisers with the right nutrients to regenerate the soil, optimizing quality and quantity of the crops. The devices of Soil Cares will provide the farmers with advice while they wait. Suggestions for fertilisers are given based on the lack of nutrients detected, as well as advice for alternative crops based on the constitution of the soil.

In West Kenya, the company Agrics, supported by an NpM member and a Dutch NGO, provides farmers with packages with inputs for maize and fertilisers. They sell these packages to farmers that have organised themselves in groups. Agrics organizes weekly sessions with farmer groups on all kinds of topics, varying from financial literacy to extension training. Some farmers told me that the members of her group help each other throughout the seasons. At time of planting crops, they work jointly on one of their fields before moving to the next plot. The averages sizes of these plots are around one acre. They took me to their fields and indeed I saw straight lines of tightly (not too tight) planted rows of maize with 2 and sometimes 3 fruits per stam, in comparance to neighbouring fields where maize was planted criss cross and smaller and lesser fruits.

The staff of Agrics visits farmers, before planting, and with the use of GPS the location of the field is determined. This information is sent to the University of Wageningen and within 24 hours, advise for fertilizers is given to the farmers. Agrics supplies the farmers with additional inputs for vegetables that they can start planting before the maize is harvested. These seedling can then be planted on the fields after harvest. This way they stimulated crop rotation.

Agrics has also started including larger packages to farmers that include chicks that can be held at the farm and sold once they are big enough. These chicks are vaccinated, and it is a breed that are larger than the local breed. The benefit is that the mortality rate of the chicks is much lower and they sell for a higher price in the market. The latest edition of the package is solar lamps. For many of the households depending on agriculture, these lamps are too expensive to buy, and because they are now part of the package, they can pay in installments. This makes it affordable.

In both cases, the use of satellites provides the possibility to check how the crop is growing, and based on this information, interventions such as additional fertilizers and irrigation can be applied. To develop these applications of satellite data, the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) has provided grants. A special programme called Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) promotes the use of satellite data for the benefit of farmers. NpM works together with NSO on how to link these initiative to financial institutions. After all, by reducing risks, access to financial services for farmers will increase.

The use of satellite data is one of the technological applications which contribute to improved production which reduces risks and makes financing smallholder farmers possible. Technology is essential for rural development. To implement these technological applications, farmers need to organise themselves in groups because the applications will become more affordable when more people use them.