Smart farming is biggest global business opportunity

February 9, 2016

By: Lucy Purdy

Old MacDonald had an app? Technology doesn’t necessarily loom large in many people’s visions about farming, but its importance to modern day agriculture is indisputable. So much so that smart farming is identified as the number one opportunity for businesses in the 2016 Global Opportunity Report.

While farmers have always sought information such as when to plant and harvest, now advanced technology is giving both large and small-scale farmers increasingly affordable and newly precise tools to produce more with less. It comes as the UN predicts food production will need to increase by 70% to cope with a global population of more than 9 billion by 2020. This is against a backdrop of climate change and diminishing arable land due to urbanisation and rising energy costs.
Released by DNV GL, the United Nations Global Compact and think tank Monday Morning last week, the report analyses 15 business opportunities that stem from five major global risks. Researchers visited eight cities on five continents and asked more than 5,500 leaders in private and public sectors to rank the opportunities. Not only did smart farming top the list of solutions to the global food crisis, it came top overall, followed by possibilities in the digital labour market. Leaders in North America, sub-Saharan Africa and India demonstrate particular faith in smart farming’s potential.

“These are not future technologies – these are technologies already available to us, right now – but scaling is needed,” said DNV GL group president and CEO Remi Eriksen.

The report positions the humble mobile phone as the most important new agricultural tool, allowing farmers to access weather and climate data and connect to new customers. Precision farming is also important. Farmers adopting precision farming techniques can expect an 18% annual increase in income.

Other technologies range from affordable drip watering to advanced, pricier hydroponics, but all allow farmers to more precisely target water and fertiliser inputs and so can be less environmentally damaging too. Smart urban farming is identified as another chief area of opportunity, particularly vertical growing. Soil monitoring can help battle drought and drones and wireless surveillance can be deployed to more effectively manage and protect crops.

So who is already farming smart?

Marc Oshima is co-founder of AeroFarms, whose protected indoor growing environments allow for efficient urban agriculture using LEDS and aeroponics (the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment). The company operates in upstate New York and plans to open the world’s largest indoor vertical farm for baby leafy greens and herbs in nearby New Jersey. Why has he shunned sun and soil to farm inside?

“It is increasingly difficult to grow outdoors with more volatile weather and pest issues, lack of water and arable land. Farming indoors enables us to grow all year round to a consistently high standard of quality. It also allows precision use of precious resources. We are able to grow with 75 times more productivity versus traditional field farming and 10 times greater than a hydroponic greenhouse while using 95% less water and zero pesticides.”
Oshima and his team marry biology, engineering and data science, recording 30,000 data points per harvest that illuminate everything from taste and texture to structural strength and stress. “When a package of leafy greens hits the shelves, we know everything from the seed to the store.”

While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, World Bank experts believe that African farmers could create a $1tn (£69m) agribusiness by 2030 through effective harnessing of capital, knowledge and technology. Yields in this region trail world averages by as much as 50%.

Samir Ibrahim is CEO and co-founder of Kenya-based solar irrigation company SunCulture whose AgroSolar irrigation kit promises to increase yields by up to 300% while using 80% less water than traditional farming methods.

“Kenyans are excited about new technologies,” says Ibrahim. “Of the 5.4m hectares of Kenyan farmland, 83% is unsuitable for rain-fed agriculture and requires irrigation, but only 4% is currently under irrigation, compared to 37% in Asia.”

The team is now developing pay-as-you-go solar irrigation services that cost as little as $2 (£1.38) per day, while SunCulture-certified technicians and agronomists provide on-farm training, soil analysis and agronomy support by mobile phone. Next-day delivery and installation anywhere in Kenya is included in the price of the system, saving farmers the hassle and expense of travelling to the city to collect their irrigation system. This is a “one stop shop”, says Ibrahim who insists it is important to look at farmers everywhere as customers, not beneficiaries of aid: “This mindset will force us to design products and services farmers want and need, not create useless products developed in isolation of the communities they hope to serve.”

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