Digital Climate Smart Agriculture

Jan 10, 2020 | All, Data & Tech Acceleration, Farmer Capability & Smart Farming

AgriFin recently released its sector learning playbook for “Digital Climate Smart Agriculture” (D-CSA), but what does it mean?

The people most likely to lose significant capital, assets and regular income during the climate crisis live in Africa. None more so than smallholder farmers, who rely on increasingly fickle climatic conditions to plant mostly rain-fed crops. While smallholder farmers are indeed the most vulnerable, they also contribute 80% of the food supply for Africa. As productivity rates stagnate due to climate change and the fastest growing population on the planet consumes more, food system deficits will have wide-reaching economic and political consequences.

To understand the scope of potential consequences for food systems and smallholder farmers, Zambia provides a cautionary tale. AgriFin Accelerate entered into Zambia in 2016 on the back of significant global interest in digitising financial services for Zambian smallholder farmers, and in 2017 witnessed the largest surplus of maize ever recorded. Just three years on, Zambia is now experiencing severe, climate-change related droughts, which have caused widespread maize deficits. This has forced the former net food exporting nation to rely on food aid for the first time in 15 years. An estimated 2.3 million people, 25% of the rural population, are now in need of emergency humanitarian assistance.

Adaptation to these accelerating changes in our weather systems are essential to protect against future scenarios such as the Zambia case. Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) knowledge and technology transfer will now be essential to lay the foundations for this rapid adaptation.

CSA as a concept is not new (see FAO 2010 CSA Framework) and is broadly defined as increasing resilience to climate change related impacts, sustainably increasing crop productivity and halting increases/reducing agricultural emissions. While conceptually sound, CSA is costly and cumbersome to implement in sparsely populated rural areas and fragmented value chains. A fully climate smart transition requires quality extension services consistently accessible to farmers, market incentives to grow more climate smart crops in diversified cropping systems, insurance for risk management and the available financing to adopt new technologies – most of these variables for success are not present in African food systems. Digitizing agriculture services offers an opportunity to address these challenges.


  • Digital learning reaches more people faster and at lower cost than traditional extension.
  • Digital financial and insurance services lower the cost of customer acquisition, de-risk financing SHFs, reduce the finance barrier to CSA adoption and protect SHFs from weather shocks.
  • Digital lends itself to customisation: products, information and services tailored for a specific location or farm.
  • Digital provides a platform for multiple providers to reach SHFs with bundled products and services across the value chain.
  • Digital is a rapidly developing field that allows for real-time and better decision making.

The emerging wave of digital innovations in the agri-tech sectors allows for new digitally accessible, low-cost channels for climate smart products and services, which were often not previously possible via analogue means. This leads to the nascent and rapidly emerging field of “Digital Climate Smart Agriculture” (D-CSA).


“D-CSA leverages digital tools to help smallholder farmers increase productivity and resilience in the face of climate change while contributing to mitigation where possible and appropriate.” (CIAT – Jiminez, D.)

Experts from our partners at CIAT have identified 44 CSA technology clusters and assessed more than 1700 combinations of CSA technologies and cropping systems. They found that just 5 technology groups account for 50% of all technologies considered climate smart:

  • water management;
  • crop tolerance to stress;
  • intercropping;
  • organic inputs;
  • conservation agriculture.

CSA is context specific involving variable combinations of these technology groups – i.e. what CSA is in one country or region and for one crop may not be CSA in another place or for another crop. AgriFin believes that bundling digital services, including unlocking finance to promote CSA adoption, and tailoring solutions to specific contexts will provide further incentives for farmers to shift to more climate resilient practices via digital means.

D-CSA is already gaining traction across Sub-Saharan Africa with digital intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs playing a leading role in facilitating the transition, for example: 

Climate Services Predictive weather SMS messaging services allowing farmers to prepare for drought or heavy rainfall events Ignitia
Farmer E-Learning Learning about new inter-cropping techniques with SMS based curriculum Arifu
Remote Water Management Solar irrigation systems with data feedback loops monitoring water usage Sunculture
Soil Management with Remote Sensing Soil testing services with sensors to provide soil quality feedback remotely Soilcares
Climate Smart Mechanisation Connecting farmers to low cost leasing services for increasing access to tractors etc Hellotractor
Digital Credit for Agriculture Credit and savings made available via mobile phones to purchase drought resistant/quality inputs with mobile money Agriwallet
Crop and Livestock Digital Insurance Weather index insurance protecting against climate change related shocks Pula
Bundled Mobile Platforms Access to multiple learning, finance and market services via mobile to increase accessibility of CSA solutions Digifarm



According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), we have five years to avoid widespread catastrophic weather events. As highlighted in the Zambia case, we must equip the world’s smallholder farmers to adapt to our new climate reality.  The digital age is simultaneously upon us and contains much of the toolkit required for rapid climate smart technology transfer to those farmers. 

Actors in the D-CSA space have the skills and resources in agronomy, big data, earth observation, financial services and farmer outreach, and can collaborate for bundled solutions to ensure SHFs have the financing they need to adopt CSA and successfully adapt to climate change for a better future. It is time to double down investment in these digital CSA solutions and rapidly scale up their deployment. 

Download “D-CSA Playbook” for more information.


John Mundy, Tanzania Country Director, Mercy Corps AgriFin 

Kristin Girvetz, Consultant, Mercy Corps AgriFin