Interview-with-santiago-santos-valle-from-fao_Cover_OneSoil Blog

"Urbanization Is Emptying the Countryside, But It's Still Producing Food"

Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
While we talk about drones and satellite imagery, for many farmers in the world, 'hi-tech' still means an ordinary two-wheel tractor. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, almost three-fourths of farmers still prepare their lands using only hand tools. We talked to Santiago Santos Valle, an agricultural engineer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about the ways machinery and new technologies can lift such farmers out of poverty.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
FAO is a United Nations agency that combats global hunger and promotes rural development through improving agricultural, forestries, and fishing practices. The FAO helps countries to design policies and works with partners to implement projects aimed at improving food security and increasing productivity in agriculture while ensuring that the natural resource base does not suffer in the process.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
FAO is a United Nations agency that combats global hunger and promotes rural development through improving agricultural, forestries, and fishing practices. The FAO helps countries to design policies and works with partners to implement projects aimed at improving food security and increasing productivity in agriculture while ensuring that the natural resource base does not suffer in the process.

Childhood, the FAO, and the importance of global expertise

— How did you start your career as an agricultural engineer? How did you land a job at the FAO?

— I grew up in a very rural region of northern Spain, Cantabria. So, I had first-hand knowledge of farmers' struggles to make a living. When I applied to university, I knew I wanted to study something related to technology and the environment. That's why I decided on agricultural engineering.

Later, as an exchange student at the University of Copenhagen, I got to learn agricultural development. And that's when I realized what I want to do in life: help improve farmers' lives and agriculture through technology and equipment in the places that need them the most.

After completing my Master's degree, I went to Bangladesh for two years to do an internship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). Then I worked in the private sector. At some point, I found out about the FAO; the type and scope of work they were doing really attracted me. Once, during a trip to Rome, I decided to try my luck and visit their Headquarters there as a tourist. Soon after my visit, I saw they needed someone with my profile, so I applied and was hired.
— What do you do at the FAO now? What are your key responsibilities?

— I'm an agricultural engineering specialist and I work in the Plant Production and Protection Division at FAO Headquarters. Inside the division, I’m on the Rural and Urban Crop and Mechanization Systems team made up of about 20 international experts from all around the world.
We offer expertise in crop production, urban agriculture, protected cultivation, perennial crops, conservation agriculture, and mechanization.
The mechanization group works to promote sustainable intensification of agricultural production by using the right equipment adapted to local conditions — i.e., soil, crops, land size, or farmer’s capacity — with our primary focus on small-scale farmers.

My main job duties include providing technical support for FAO mechanization field programs and other such initiatives. Lately, we’ve discovered a new area of knowledge related to digital agriculture and agricultural robotics.
Santiago Santos Valle in the field_OneSoil Blog
Santiago Santos Valle in the field
— What projects are you currently working on?

— Right now, my group has two main projects. One focuses on implementing SAMA, which is the continental framework for developing Sustainable Agricultural Mechanization in Africa. In the project’s current phase, we are mostly focusing on capacity building through workshops and training sessions. We had our first workshops in Uganda and the Ivory Coast last December. This year, we’re planning to hold more training in Benin, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia.

The other project concerns climate-smart agriculture in Zambia and Sri Lanka. We’re creating service hubs there to support the development of agricultural mechanization. These hubs are centers where a farmer or machine operator can offer mechanization services, such as seeding, to fellow farmers in the area for a service fee.

I’m also currently working on a report on the application of agricultural robotics and its prospects in sustainable agriculture and developing countries. It’s planned for publication this year.
— The FAO seems to be predominantly focused on developing countries, but many experts are based in Europe or the US. How do they learn about the context and developments of a country where they aren’t present most of the time? And how do they manage projects there?

— Even though nearly all countries in the world are FAO members, the FAO focuses primarily on countries that need assistance enhancing their agricultural production and nutrition the most. My unit, for example, can assist over 50 countries every year, and we travel to any of them when requested. Most of the time, however, we deliver expertise through our country and regional offices. They host experts from all over the world, including those from developing countries, who have a grasp of what is most needed and works the best on the ground.

Technical divisions like mine provide logistic and wider support to FAO projects and interventions from the main office. This global perspective helps us share expertise from different regions. For example, the FAO can apply one country’s successful experience to another continent to replicate it there.
— Can you give an example of when this was the case?

— Sure! A great example is the success of two-wheel tractors in Southeast Asia, which became a great tool for improving productivity and bringing mechanization to small-scale farming in many countries in the region. Currently, we're working with other partners to promote this technology in various African countries where we see the right conditions for its application are in place.

Sustainable mechanization and 'Ubers' for farmers

— Could you explain to us what sustainable agricultural mechanization is and
why it's important for developing countries?

— Sustainable mechanization allows farmers to move from subsistence farming to a more market-oriented approach, making the agricultural sector more attractive to rural youth. It also enhances food security and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in developing countries while preserving the environment because improved agricultural tools and practices create a more stable food chain.
Today, most of the work done in the field in developing countries is performed manually using basic tools such as a hoe or sickle.
Sustainable mechanization enables us to equip farmers with adequate tools, both manual and automatized, that fit their needs. For example, jab planters, which are operated manually, help directly seed in no-till soil. They release the seed and fertilizer simultaneously. Even this [small improvement] can be a huge step forward for a farmer who relies on traditional sowing using a dibber and manual application of fertilizer. Sustainable mechanization can be introduced at any stage of farming, from land preparation and weed control to harvesting and preparation for storage.
— What role does the FAO play in this process?

— The FAO primarily supports member-countries through policy advice, capacity building, and promoting adequate equipment. This includes developing pilot projects with local partners and advocating national authorities and bodies to adopt various farming technologies. We also work to facilitate cooperation between countries to foster the exchange of knowledge and experience in the agricultural sector.

For instance, in 2018, the FAO and the African Union launched the SAMA policy framework I previously mentioned, which creates the foundation for helping various African countries to advance agriculture through sustainable mechanization.

The framework includes a dozen different areas. These include, for example, promoting innovative financing mechanisms for agricultural mechanization or strengthening the role of women and youth in the mechanization process. These two groups are often the ones who carry the burden of farming because older men migrate to other countries or urban areas.

Currently, we’re trying to facilitate the implementation of the SAMA framework on the continent and to support countries on an individual basis when they express interest in developing their national agricultural mechanization policies.
Kenyan farmer Lucy Kathegu Kigunda works at a sorghum crop in her farm_OneSoil Blog
Kenyan farmer and beneficiary of FAO's Conservation Agriculture Programme Lucy Kathegu Kigunda works at a sorghum crop in her farm. ©FAO/Luis Tato
— Mechanization is widely associated with large-scale farming, which, for the most part, is not very sustainable. How can it be productive and profitable for farmers, while simultaneously conserving resources and preserving the ecosystem?

— We have this association of mechanization with big tractors and big farms because of developed countries or countries where the agricultural sector is dominated by large land-holdings. However, there are very mechanized agricultural sectors in several South Asian countries, such as Bangladesh or Thailand, where the average farm is smaller than 5 hectares.
It’s not a question of the size of the machine, but rather its suitability to environmental, social, and economic conditions.
If the right type of equipment is used in the right context, it can contribute to increased yields, less post-harvest losses and, at the same time, save resources or minimize the negative impact on the ecosystem.

A good example of this is direct seeding that allows farmers to sow directly on no-till soils, thus saving the costs of plowing and preventing soil degradation. At the same time, it facilitates better crop establishment and provides higher yield potential. If the soil cover is preserved and properly managed, this can contribute to better soil conditions.
— People in many African countries don’t have computers but they actively use smartphones. Do you think mobile-based startups can help spur agricultural development there?
I think mobile solutions can allow small scale farmers to enjoy the benefits of digital agriculture. There are already some companies that develop apps for hiring different services for mechanization. For example, on-demand tractor service provides a sort of uberization of agricultural services.

There is also huge potential to develop apps for crop monitoring and farm or pest management. The FAW Monitoring and Early Warning System app by FAO, for instance, makes it possible to track the appearance and progress of the Fall Armyworm, a pest that jumped from the Americas to Africa just three years ago and is now damaging the maize crops all over Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

The future, robots and AgTech startups

— The use of technology in farming is on the rise. How do you picture the agriculture of the future? What will define it?

— I can't predict what agriculture will look like in 20 years because technologies develop too fast to provide an accurate picture.
However, it’s clear that we’re moving towards an agriculture where collecting, managing, and processing data will be very important.
This data will allow some processes to be automated, starting with those that require more manpower, for example, harvesting specialty crops. As technologies develop, we'll see more automated equipment; not just robots, but drones, processing equipment, and so on. Urbanization is emptying the countryside, but it's still producing food.

So, we need to find ways to replace this manpower if we want to maintain our levels of food production or produce even more if the population continues to grow as predicted.
Several Kenyan farmers fix a ripping and planting machine_OneSoil Blog
Several Kenyan farmers fix a ripping and planting machine. For this group of farmers, sustainable mechanization became a part of everyday life. ©FAO/Luis Tato
— You're also an expert in agricultural robots ('agrobots'), which are seen as a key trend that will deeply influence agriculture in the future. What can these robots be used for?

— Agricultural robots, or 'agrobots' are here to stay. But only time will tell for how long and in which proportion.

Right now, they mainly focus on crop/soil monitoring, weeding, and harvesting, but I think we'll soon see robots that can do most of the agricultural work. For example, they monitor crops by taking images of different wavelengths and comparing them with AI-trained repositories. There are also robots that can perform weeding mechanically, while others use apps to detect weeds and remove them.

In harvesting, these robots are usually used at pick times in value crops, such as berries, vines, or orchards. There are examples of strawberry and asparagus harvesting already on the market. Other robots act as platforms, similar to tractors, that can carry different tools to perform a range of farm operations, from sowing to harvesting.

However, agricultural robots need infrastructure to manage data and to support their communication with other tech tools. They also require specialized service and operation.

— Can you name a few robots that you find particularly interesting and useful?
— Personally, I find robots that do mechanical weeding to be very promising. They'll be very useful in reducing the manpower needed for manual weeding, as well as the need for chemically controlling weeds, which will also result in environmental benefits.
— How do you see the role of agricultural startups, such as OneSoil, in further developing agriculture? What is the FAO’s overall attitude towards such startups?

— I see start-ups as a major engine of technological development. They have the freedom to propose break-through technologies and ideas that bigger companies can’t afford to because of their more rigid business structure and organization.

The digital era that we live in has seen the birth of many startups related to agricultural services, especially for crop and soil monitoring. These tools can help improve agriculture to a scale that we weren’t able to before due to preceding technologies' imprecision. Previously, sensory was based on analog sensors (e.g. weather stations) and remote imagery from satellites or aerial photos. Today, digital technologies give us real-time information.

Interview conducted by Vlad Kovalevsky
Text edited by Tanya Alipchikova
Illustrations created by Dasha Sazanovich
Article layout by Anton Sidorov
Do you like this post?
Related Articles