Date archives "November 2020"

UK Space Agency IPP’s Agri-Webinar

The UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme (IPP) hosted an online workshop on Thursday 29th October for the agricultural projects in IPP. Eleven projects attended, represented by ~35 attendees. The objective of the session was to provide a forum for networking and sharing of knowledge and lessons between the IPP projects, with the work undertaken to support the sustainability of impacts generated over the longer term. 

After a welcome from Athene Gadsby, the UK Space Agency’s IPP Programme Manager, each consortium provided a three-minute lightning introduction overviewing their project in terms of the objectives, partners and results so far. This session highlighted the diversity of the project portfolio and the breadth of technologies, impact objectives and geographical focus within it.

A guest speaker, Eli Pollak (CEO of Apollo Agriculture) joined to provide an external perspective on the use of earth observation in agriculture. Apollo Agriculture is a technology company based in Nairobi, Kenya. It helps small-scale farmers maximise their profits by using satellite data, machine learning, and automated operations to enable better credit decisions and keep costs low and processes scalable. Eli provided an overview of their business model of providing an optimised bundle of products e.g. fertiliser and seed, information products e.g. agronomic advice, and financing e.g. loans, to service the full suite of needs of small-scale farmers. From a technical perspective, Eli explained how the company uses satellite imagery and machine learning to help assess the credit worthiness of each farmer. He also highlighted the importance of ensuring that the farmers are aware of how their personal data and information is being used, and how they benefit in terms of service quality and price, etc.

During the afternoon session, we ran a set of virtual breakouts focused on a variety of topics on achieving and measuring impact, and how to ensure the long term financial sustainability of the service delivered via the project and hence ensure the long term sustainability of the impacts that the project was set up to achieve. A brief summary of each breakout room is below: 

How to quantify agricultural impacts – beyond the metric of yield?  

This group acknowledged that whilst improvements in yield is commonly an impact indicator for agricultural projects, due in part to its direct link to the SDGs, there are broad benefits that the yield indicator doesn’t capture. This might include increased efficiency and use of agricultural inputs, better management of production to smooth out volumes, reduced environmental damage, improved crop quality and mitigation of potential loss through extreme weather events, disease or pests. Our discussions suggested that alternative measurements including improved resilience and the ability to foresee events in order to take action were important for many projects.

What are the common pitfalls to measuring agricultural impacts, such as the timing of harvest cycles, getting buy-in from farmers to actually make changes, and defining counterfactuals?

Timing was the most common issue raised by this group. It was noted that whilst an IPP project, and the development of the product, might take 4-5 years, many agricultural impacts take many more years to emerge. At the same time, aligning harvest cycles to product development and the rhythm of reporting and evaluation within IPP creates a challenge for data collection and impact measurement in agricultural projects. Many projects also shared concerns related to attribution, and how to measure the effect of their specific agronomic advice on a complex farming system. For example, it is difficult to fully account for the action taken by farmers to act on agronomic recommendations, and how it creates an impact when faced with multiple, external, complex factors that might also influence the result. Participants noted that using counterfactuals and control groups to assess this issue of attribution might be technically possible, but also raised ethical considerations relating to the exclusion of certain growers from these interventions.  Participants suggested that as an alternative to control groups, national level data could be used to understand general trends. 

What value is the user going to derive from the solution, does that outweigh the costs, and who pays?

This group noted that achieving post grant financial sustainability can be difficult and very time consuming requiring a lot more effort than originally expected in terms of meetings, demonstrations and negotiations with potential customers/funders. It was discussed how it is difficult for smallholders to pay directly for the services, but not impossible as demonstrated by Apollo Agriculture, whereas perhaps larger agri-business was a more viable customer. Some IPP projects are pursuing a ‘top down’ approach by providing their services directly to government customers, e.g. Ministries of Agriculture, while other projects are looking from the ‘demand’ side, e.g. with the cooperatives and wholesalers that aggregate smallholder supply and seeing how they can expand the service to others in the value chain to add other benefits over productivity. Automation may be another way to drive down costs and make the services more affordable, but that could be more difficult in developing countries as it will take a long time and investment.

What is the role of EO in the agricultural sector in regards to insurance and credit? 

Many of the agricultural projects in IPP are investigating whether EO can be used to improve the provision of insurance to farmers. We heard from Airbus their plans to improve the offering of flood & drought insurance for farmers in Kenya, eOsphere’s efforts in Mongolia to support an index based insurance scheme for herders, and Rezatec in Mexico aiming to improve insurance products for wheat and sugarcane farmers. Victoria Clause (Technology and Agriculture Consultant, Mercy Corps AgriFin) provided an opinion on how bundling both credit and insurance products has led previously to greater demand from smallholder farmers. Finally, Assimila highlighted that whilst it is possible to create index based insurance for some hazards e.g. rainfall for drought, others such as pest risk are harder to identify an appropriate index. 

We will be hosting further workshops in spring 2021 to build on this knowledge-sharing event. If you have specific ideas for such an event, please do contact Caribou Space on nicki@cariboudigital.net

What does innovation taste like?

Original post here.

SF Bay Coffee Company is a shining example of innovations for smallholder farmers in the African coffee business designed to improve livelihoods and sustainability. Farming five hectares in Kigoma Sector SF Bay’s 20,000 coffee trees sit at 1,743-1,935 metres above sea level. This location experiences varying temperature levels of 16-25 degrees, perfect for growing high-quality coffee. The company also sources coffee beans from around 1,960 coffee farmers in the surrounding Kigoma Sector. The company started operations in Rwanda in 2006 and became a partner in the ACCORD programme in 2018 to increase the level of support offered to its coffee farmers and help them tackle the impact of climate change.

We talked to the SFBC Rwanda Director, Mario Serracin, Ph.D. about their company, the challenges of climate change in Rwanda, and the impact of the ACCORD programme on their farmers.

What were SFBC original goals and expectations on joining the ACCORD programme?

SF Bay Coffee started as coffee buyers in Rwanda and East Africa sourcing from some 30,000 producers since 2006. Building on this experience they set up a model farm and coffee washing station, and an outreach programme to smallholder coffee farmers offering agronomic, weather advisory, social and business support programmes. They have a full soils-testing lab to optimise farm management and through the ACCORD programme installed a weather station on the farm.


SF Bay’s demonstration plot showing inter-cropping with banana trees

SF Bay Coffee reached out to ACCORD in order to be more precise and effective in their farmer support, and in particular to improve the smallholder farmers knowledge of good agronomic practices. SF Bay Coffee’s main target in Rwanda has been to triple the farmers’ incomes by increasing yields and profits.

How does ACCORD fit with your wider vision and goals for your business and what you are trying to achieve for farmers?

SF Bay Coffee has so far mapped 1,960 farms and fields. The farmers had limited knowledge of coffee farming and were producing less than 1kg per tree. They also had limited access to inputs and agronomic support.

With the ACCORD project, the farmers have increased production and adopted improved agronomic practices which includes growing better coffee varieties, digging erosion channels, mulching the fields, improved scouting for pests, and effective pests and disease management.
Through the WeatherSafe platform, more than 200,000 messages advising these practices have been sent to farmers to date, helping to increase productivity and quality of the coffee beans.

They have lowered processing costs through a modern design of washing station and this enables the company to offer 67% of the green coffee price to farmers. The price offered by the company to farmers in last two years has been 29-42% higher than the minimum price set by regulator NAEB.

What are the most important interventions or innovations required to make smallholder coffee farming sustainable?

“Smallholder farmers need to be organised in producer organisations (cooperatives) in order to attain the right agro-inputs ahead of time and achieve economies of scale. They also require pre-financing to meet production costs”, said Mario Serracin.


Mario Serracin, Director of SF Bay Coffee Rwanda

He notes that cooperatives are better able to negotiate for pre-financing to procure inputs on behalf of farmers and achieve better prices from coffee buyers. Shared services including transport, washing stations and marketing, also go a long way to ensure that farmers get improved returns.

How significant has been the impact of climate change on coffee farming in Africa?

Impact of climate change has been very significant, especially to smallholder farmers. Rwanda has witnessed extreme weather, changing rainfall patterns, increased temperatures and incidence of pests and diseases as a result of climate change. Some coffee varieties have completely disappeared since they could not withstand adverse changes in climate. Some smallholder farmers have even abandoned coffee altogether.

Application of the ACCORD service has enabled farmers to become more resilient to climate change and able to adjust their farming activities to cope. This has led to a significant reduction of costs of production, especially agro-inputs through the reduced wastage that comes from accurate forecasts of rainfall.

“ACCORD technology has addressed climate change challenges quite well, but we need higher resolutions at ground level and more access microclimate information”, said Mario Serracin.

How well has it integrated with your approach to innovation in coffee agronomy?

There were high expectations that the ACCORD service would support and enhance the company’s passion for innovation. The key was to use it to improve decision-making and outreach to farmers. This has proved to be the case in both areas.

For example, shortly after coffee trees were initially planted on the model farm three consecutive days of rain were predicted by the WeatherSafe platform. Reacting in advance, the company’s staff designed canals to capture the excess water to store for predicted drought days, and developed an gravity-based irrigation system. This efficient use of rainwater noticeably increased plant health and yields in the first year after planting, achieving results normally expected over three years.


ACCORD has helped produce higher yields and better quality cherries

SF Bay Coffee has also been able to improve agronomic support to coffee farmers through the employment of tech savvy university graduates equipped with the ACCORD platform. With the relevant training, these interns have mapped farms, set up demonstration plots, scouted for pests and diseases, and trained farmers on their own farms.

SF Bay Coffee has been able to achieve increased production and quality at its own farm as well as from its network of smallholder farmers. Its innovative approach to coffee farming is the driver of this success and that innovation has been extended to many smallholder farmers thanks to ACCORD. Farmers appreciate the alerts and advice they receive via their mobile phones, as evidenced through latest farmers surveys, where 97.8% of farmers reported taking recommended actions, 98.3% reported positive change in the health of their crop, and 97.2% reported being satisfied with the service, overall.

The proof ultimately is in the coffee. Having achieved 90+ scores in the Rare Specialty Category there is no doubt as to the quality of SF Bay Coffee. So next time you enjoy a taste of that fine brand, raise your cup to innovation.

International Partnership Programme

The International Partnership Programme (IPP) is a five-year, £30 million-per-year initiative run by the UK Space Agency. It focuses on using the UK space sector’s research and innovation strengths to deliver sustainable economic or societal benefit to developing economies around the world. IPP is part of, and is funded from, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). GCRF is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government which supports cutting-edge research and innovation on global issues affecting developing countries.