Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) are among the most diverse regions on Earth, home to a vast array of emerging markets poised to continue their upward trajectory over the coming decades. The paths by which LAC will develop are as diverse as the region itself, and one of the most promising developments for the region is big data for agriculture.
Big data, in general, refers to datasets that are too large for conventional databases to make sense of. In recent years, analysis of increasingly vast and complex databases is made possible through artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and mobile devices. This cutting-edge tech transfers to agriculture via a wide range of emerging technologies, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technologies.
Weather sensors have proven to be a revolutionary technology in Latin America, allowing farmers to better predict weather patterns in a world plagued by climate change and regional phenomena like El Niño. Libelium is a “smart sensors” manufacturer that has partnered with Red Tecnoparque Colombia to envelop rural agriculture with IoT.
The mentioned company partnership actively tracks critical parameters associated with plantain growth, such as soil moisture, solar radiation, and trunk diameter. These metrics assure that harvesting occurs at near-optimal times for each plantain regardless of diverse weather conditions. Plantains make up to 10% of Colombian agricultural production value–3 million tons per annum! Therefore, it’s evident that cutting costs while improving the quantity and quality of harvests will significantly benefit the Colombian economy.
The story doesn’t end at plantains. In Colombia, data-driven farming practices have increased rice yields. Previously, rice yields fell from an average of six tonnes per hectare to five in only five years, thanks to climate unpredictability. Importantly, there were no changes in soil or crop management during that time. With the use of big data, the Colombian National Rice Federation (FEDEARROZ) advises farmers on shifts in climate patterns to identify the best times to plant. In 2014 FEDEARROZ urged 170 farmers to skip two annual rice harvests due to a projected drought. The forecast proved to be accurate and ultimately saved farmers an estimated $1.7 million. This story demonstrates how big data applications, such as weather sensors, empower rural farmers in Latin America to make more data-driven decisions about their livelihoods.
The weather itself is not the only variant threat to rural farmers created by climate change. Pests such as earworms and stink bugs can eradicate entire crops, devastating farmers’ livelihoods. Weather forecasting using big data provides a deeper understanding of factors such as humidity, winds, precipitation, and soil fertility. These data points empower farmers with predictive models of pest outbreaks. Given these pests thrive in specific weather conditions, accurate predictive models are critical in shaping rural farmers’ approach to battling the issue. Even more promising, the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical in Colombia found that an integrated pest management approach was not only more effective than traditional pesticides but also significantly cheaper.
Satellite mapping is another way big data positively impacts agriculture in Latin America. GeoAgro, a company that focuses on enhancing sustainable farming practices, has successfully decreased the need for physically scouting fields by 30%. Reduced need for physical surveying is both cost-effective and pragmatic in the context of the recent Covid-19 outbreak. While this figure is impressive, the robust data that satellites can gather is still underutilized. This fact suggests that even more significant benefits for agriculture derived from satellite mapping will begin to emerge in the coming years.
Tracking agricultural products in an emerging market is a difficult task. IoT technologies such as radio frequency identification devices (RFID) is a low-cost technological solution to this problem. Coto CICSA in Argentina found that the use of an RFID system virtually eliminated theft from their grocery stores while simultaneously optimizing their supply chain communications. This system reduced payment processing times as well as inventory redundancies. The global IoT market is positioned to be worth around $35 billion by 2027, with the Latin American market estimated to grow faster than the worldwide average.
Big data is empowering Latin America to cope with a rapidly changing climate effectively. Additional benefits derived from these technologies enable rural farmers to increase their yields, increase consumer confidence, and foster a greater sense of independence. Also, the low cost of many of these tools means emerging market participants can afford to take advantage of them, which suggests a relatively short timeframe for widespread adoption.
There are ample opportunities in the intersection of rural agriculture and big data applications in Latin America. Farming is tough work plagued by uncertainty, and there’s a pressing need for a human-centric approach to foreign investment. Through a mindful application of big data analytics, Latin America can modernize the countryside and protect the rural farmer without sacrificing the quality of their products or livelihoods.