Reprinted from Forbes.com
Hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers lose crops each harvest to increasingly severe weather. What can entrepreneurs do to help?
From unpredictable weather to plant-destroying locusts and viruses, farming has always been a high-risk industry. Over centuries, advances in tools and methods such as crop rotation, plows, irrigation and fertilizer helped farmers produce more food and reap profits. But small-scale farmers in developing countries lack the modern agricultural technology needed to produce enough food. Increasingly, climate change and severe weather decimate food production, jeopardizing hundreds of millions of farmers, their communities, global food security and political stability across nations.
Investing in these farmers by providing technology, training and other solutions is the right thing to do. But these companies aren’t just focused on social impact. They are tackling food security across the value chain, increasing efficiencies and, in some cases, even outperforming others in their category by 50 percent.
The Rising Costs of Food Production
Globally, 500 million small scale farmers provide about 80 percent of food in developing countries. They also make up the largest share of the undernourished in those areas, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development. When their crops fail due to extreme weather, food prices spike in their communities, and in combination with other macroeconomic variables, heighten the impact of hunger and poverty.
The World Bank warns of eminent crises in areas hit hard by climate change. Investors in crops such as coffee beans, cocoa and bananas, for example, see red flags. According to its Food Price Crisis Observatory, the potential long-term repercussions from events such as El Niño and Ebola could dramatically raise food prices for vulnerable populations. The sharp escalation in food prices in Latin American, Caribbean and African countries ten years ago caused political instability and even food riots.
Bold young innovators like Liisa Petrykowska, the founder of Ignitia, are designing tools to address the problem.
Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, Liisa was involved in grassroots actions from an early age. A passionate environmentalist, Liisa’s studies in meteorology led her to dedicate her career to climate change research. While monitoring climates in the tropics for a NASA research project at the University of Washington, Liisa discovered that existing formulas that calculated weather patterns for the tropics were extremely unreliable. As a result, small scale farmers close to the equator lost crops because they were ill-prepared for sudden floods and heavy rains. The results of climate change – increasing droughts, floods and storms, soil erosion, infestations and poor irrigation – exacerbated the problem.
“Nearly every decision a farmer makes is weather dependent,” says Liisa. “When should you plant? In places like Ghana, it doesn’t sprinkle. The weather is either sunshine or a downpour, the kind of heavy rain that can wash away seeds, fertilizer and destroy crops,” she says. “I was alarmed at how many farmers were impacted. And nobody was focusing on producing more accurate weather predictions for the tropics.”
Taking Action to Help Farmers in Ghana
Liisa knew that if farmers in Ghana could predict the weather, they could plan when to plant and when to harvest, what tools to use and in what resources to invest. In 2009, she left her comfortable position in research and recruited a team of colleagues to help her. The team moved to Ghana to create a way to more accurately predict the weather in the tropics. They needed the right algorithm and the right delivery system. They also needed to make it accessible and understandable to farmers.
It would take four years for their company, Ignitia, to develop its service. The intense work meant long hours. The work paid off.
The Weather Report that Texts You
Ignitia launched its alpha version in 2015. Each morning, subscribed farmers receive a text with a 48-hour GPS-specific forecast. Ignitia’s forecasts predict tropical weather with an 84% accuracy — a rate previously unheard of for the region. It eliminates the need for smartphones or internet access, significantly increasing the number of farmers who can use it. In the first year, 80,000 farmers subscribed. The farmers pay about $4-6 per season for the service via mobile credit.
Says Liisa, “Farmers can work smarter, save money and produce better crops.” In fact, farmers increase their yields and income by as much as 80 percent. By 2018, Ignitia plans to reach 1 million farmers in West Africa. Expansion continues globally in other tropical regions, including East Africa, India, South East Asia, South America and Central America.
Collaboration and Investment Fuel AgriTech
It will take more than individual entrepreneurs to tackle these global problems.
In public-private partnerships (PPPs), governments, companies, citizen organizations and others pool their resources, sharing investment, risk and financial benefits to solve big problems. Agri-PPPs help small-scale farmers access technology, funds and education, and as a result, increase their yields in a more sustainable way. Private companies involved in these partnerships can profit, often commercializing the technology and the product ahead of their competitors, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
An agri-PPP in Pakistan, for instance, developed a drought-resistant and sustainable wheat seed affordable in the local area and profitable to farmers. The private partner was the first on the market and the sole distributer of the wheat varieties.
Unilever, in partnership the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and in collaboration with Ashoka, runs the Young Entrepreneurs Awards, and has recognized new agri-smart companies like Illuminum Greenhouses, a Kenyan company that builds and installs smart greenhouses and drip irrigation kits, and Farmerline, a Ghanaian company that provides web-based agricultural support to farmers via messaging.
There are plenty of resources available to multinational corporations interested in developing partnerships. Organizations like Consumer Goods Forum, the Circular Economy and event campaigns such as Project Everyone are leading the way.
Of course, agri-PPPs, individual entrepreneurs and investors won’t soon stop climate change and end the cycle of poverty for millions of farmers in developing countries. Governments balk. Technology fails. Companies focus on profits to the detriment of sustainability and human rights goals. Cultural issues abound.
A transparent process that maintains fairness to all parties is paramount, says FAO, recognizing that farmers, communities, researchers and companies alike benefit from collaboration that strengthens food production and security.
Liisa’s motto: “While the difficult takes time, the impossible just takes a bit longer.”
This article was produced as part of a two-part series profiling emerging entrepreneurs tackling sustainability issues around the world. To enter your idea into the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2017, apply here http://po.st/YEA or follow the conversation online at #Biz4Good.
Laura Wenner is a writer who covers business, legal affairs and policy.