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Beyond the Plow
4 innovations for poor farmers
Four new tools that are helping poor farmers grow more food.
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Whenever I visit small farmers in a poor country, I’m struck by how many are laboring with hoes, plows, and other implements that haven’t changed in generations. Yet farmers in wealthier countries have benefited from wave after wave of technological improvements. This gap is one big reason why some farmers produce much more food than others.

Thankfully, some of the brightest minds in Africa, India, and elsewhere are creating new tools to close the gap.

Here are four especially promising innovations…

For many years, so little agriculture research was being done in Africa that we knew less about the soil there than we did about the surface of Mars. Now that’s changing, thanks to an initiative to map the continent’s soil. The Africa Soil Information Service is creating digital maps that help farmers make informed decisions about which seeds to plant, which fertilizers to use, and how to raise their crop yields. They’re available free to anyone with a cell phone or Internet connection.

Agriculture Innovation Slide Map

In Africa, half a billion people depend on cassava as a staple crop. But breeding more-nutritious, disease-resistant varieties of the root takes a long time—a decade or more. Now scientists with the Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NEXTGEN) project have cut that time in half, using computer modeling techniques and a treasure trove of new information on the plant’s genome. They have also improved the breeding cycle, so they can zero in on the most desirable traits earlier in the process.

Agriculture Innovation Slide 4

How do you cheaply spread good information about farming? The Indian nonprofit Digital Green is having success with simple YouTube videos. They’ve shot thousands of videos featuring farmers sharing best practices. (See for yourself.) Farmers, they’ve found, are much more likely to listen to peers who look and sound like them. The idea isn’t limited to farming either: The UK’s development agency is now helping Digital Green use its platform to spread health messages.

Agriculture Innovation Slide 3

Being a dairy farmer has risks. As I learned on a trip to Kenya, milk can spill or spoil on its way from the cow to the chilling station. So I asked the team at Global Good to study the problem. Working with Heifer International, they made a jug that’s easy to clean and won’t spill. Partners in Kenya and Ethiopia will make and sell them for about $5 each, versus up to $30 for other jugs. This modest step could help dairy farmers earn more money—and create new manufacturing and sales jobs too.

Innovation slide 3

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