By Alice Cazzaniga
While still in their nascent stages, digital automation technologies show immense promise to revolutionize agriculture in the coming decades. Technologies like precision agriculture and site-specific farm management enabled by automation form the backbone of modern smart farming practices, in that they boost crop yields while minimizing the consumption of inputs like water, fertilizers and pesticides.
These automation technologies offer major benefits. Firstly, they have the potential to significantly enhance agricultural productivity and promote environmental sustainability. Automated processes allow for more precise application of inputs only where required, thereby increasing resource efficiency. They reduce soil disturbance and compaction issues associated with large farm equipment. Secondly, automation technologies can improve the lives of farmers by generating higher incomes, reducing manual labor, and creating more flexible schedules. Smart farms utilize automation for various tasks like analyzing soil and crop conditions, making decisions on inputs and practices, and executing them. Automated agricultural robots and drones can monitor field conditions, detect problems and apply custom treatments for individual plants. This helps apply inputs precisely, in the right amounts, at the optimal time.
All these advantages have the potential to positively impact not just farmers but the entire food chain. Increased and sustainable crop yields coupled with reduced production costs can benefit consumers by providing access to affordable, nutrient-dense food. However, the widespread adoption of agricultural automation technologies still faces numerous challenges associated with the high costs of technology, data management and standardization issues.
Having said so, agricultural automation technologies exist across varying stages of maturity and commercial readiness. Much of the existing technology landscape falls in the “scaling” or “close to market” stages, indicating that wide-scale adoption has yet to be achieved. Livestock automation solutions and crop farm management systems using IoT and cloud computing are the most mature, facilitating activities like yield monitoring and meteorological data collection. However, advanced robotics and automation for complex tasks in both field and indoor farming are still in the prototype or early commercialization phases.
Though the use of digital automation technologies is growing steadily, it remains concentrated primarily in high-income nations where access to necessary infrastructure exists. In contrast, many farmers in lower-income countries still struggle with basic issues like unreliable electricity and poor internet connectivity. To unlock the full potential of agricultural automation, governments in lower-income regions must first address structural challenges by investing in rural infrastructure development. Only then will small-scale and resource-poor farmers be able to truly benefit from the productivity gains, cost reductions and precision enabled by these technologies. Moreover, the concept of Sustainable Intensification (SI) offers practical approaches to boost agricultural output while safeguarding precious natural resources and ecosystem services. This method emphasizes the need to customize interventions based on local requirements and circumstances. With this in mind, the EWA-BELT project is dedicated to promoting sustainable food production systems through SI in diverse small-scale farming communities throughout East and West Africa. The primary objective of this initiative is to establish an interconnected African “belt” that facilitates the exchange of best practices and experiences, enabling the assessment and promotion of SI across various settings. By implementing SI and fostering the sharing of knowledge, the project aims to bolster agricultural productivity and sustainability across the African continent. Additionally, enabling access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in isolated and rural areas holds immense promise for alleviating poverty and enhancing the socio-economic well-being of individuals. In pursuit of these goals, the EWA-BELT Project employs two ICT solutions, namely PLANTHEAD and qPCR, to effectively meet the needs of the project's beneficiaries.
Governments also play a vital role in ensuring small-scale farmers, and producers also benefit from such progress that in turn requires a level playing field where automation solutions are accessible and affordable for all. Investments in rural energy and communication infrastructure are essential to provide access. Education and upskilling programs can develop the human resources needed. Transparent data governance frameworks are critical to enabling data sharing while protecting privacy, and funding for applied research can accelerate innovation.
In general, digital automation offers numerous opportunities such as more precise farming operations, improved worker safety, environmental sustainability, and resilience to shocks, but governments must nurture these technologies responsibly to ensure they enhance, rather than replace, human labor. Addressing issues like data security, interoperability and environmental impacts through appropriate policies and regulations is critical. Overall, favorable government policies that facilitate access, drive innovation, ensure inclusivity and provide oversight will determine how much digital automation can really contribute to sustainable intensification, food security and improved livelihoods for millions of smallholder farmers. Governments that get this balance right will reap the greatest rewards from agricultural automation.