FAO director-general José Graziano da Silva, addressing agriculture ministers from around the world, emphasised the need for a digital revolution to promote access to new technologies that will work to help small-scale farmers.

“It’s time to accelerate innovation in agriculture and to do so in a way that aspires to make a difference to hundreds of millions of people who produce the bulk of the world’s food on family farms”, the director-general said.

“FAO is working with digital innovations, providing new inputs for farmers in rural areas. We need good governance and the right policies to support that,” he told agriculture ministers from more than 70 countries and officials from organisations including the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the African Development Bank, attending a high-level meeting in Berlin.

Assuring that transformative digital technologies leave no one behind means finding ways to allow rural smallholders, including young people, to tap into them, boost their productivity and improve their market access, he told delegates at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which focused on the potential of digital technology’s contributing to the future of farming.

Digital technologies allow “scale without mass”, which can enhance smallholders’ access to markets, which is fundamental, he said.

FAO has been promoting the development of digital solutions that can be easily, cheaply and sustainably localised, and in particular is focused on areas such as extension services, meteorological information, pest and disease control, market information, insurance, natural resource management and social protection programmes. Investments that involve youth – as engaged actors rather than as beneficiaries only – is essential, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where population and food needs are growing fast, Graziano da Silva added.

FAO’s director-general also announced that FAO, with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Bank, will start preparing a technical impact assessment on what countries are doing in digitalisation, to inform policymakers of the task ahead. “The work will start right away,” he said.

What FAO does

FAO has numerous initiatives that seek to leverage emerging technologies to tackle smallholder, youth and gender challenges around the developing world.

For example, FAO has pioneered the use of unmanned aerial drones to mitigate risks to agriculture in the Philippines, monitor locust threats and contribute to advanced forest mapping and monitoring made possible by geospatial platforms such as FAO’s OpenForis.

FAO has rolled out four smartphone apps in Rwanda and Senegal that offer users real-time information on livestock disease control and feeding strategies, nutrition, weather forecasts and cropping calendars, and allows farmers directly to obtain information on market prices for their produce and agricultural inputs. The apps have been tailored with an eye to local conditions such as literacy levels, connectivity rates and local languages.

In response to the arrival in Africa of Fall Armyworm, an invasive species that can ravage essential food crops such as maize, FAO has been quick to introduce an app allowing farmers to upload information from their fields to bolster early warning systems and strategies. Another app, that uses voice technology and is able to work even when offline, can quickly confirm whether the insect is responsible for crop damage.

Further work has used digital technology in innovative ways to improve the sustainable livelihoods of small-scale fishing communities. FAO has worked directly with the private sector to share the fruits of the digital revolution, notably with Google to make geospatial mapping more accessible to all and with Telefonica to optimise water efficiency and nutrition knowledge in Central America.

FAO has also held a major conference and hackathon in Rwanda to encourage local talent to engage in and positively influence the changes of a world undergoing disruption. More than 100 proposals from 22 countries in Africa testify to shared interest and momentum. – Press release

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