Last week, during a routine check, SpaceX's latest rocket exploded on the launch pad in a great ball of fire. The payload, a multi-million dollar internet satellite, was already mounted on the rocket and was completely destroyed in the explosion. So why is this bad news for smallholder farmers in Africa?
The satellite on the rocket was owned by Facebook and destined to greatly improve internet coverage in Africa through its Internet.org initiative. The Amos-6 satellite had amongst its functions the capability to spot-beam broadband internet access directly towards smartphones in Sub-Saharan countries.
The initiatives of Internet.org are aimed at spreading access to the internet around the globe and its website states:
"The internet is essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other. And for many of us, it's a huge part of our everyday lives. But most of the world does not have access to the internet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative with the goal of bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn't have them. Imagine the difference an accurate weather report could make for a farmer planting crops, or the power of an encyclopedia for a child without textbooks. Now, imagine what they could contribute when the world can hear their voices. The more we connect, the better it gets."
Smallholder farmer connectivity
Many of our projects involve smallholder farmers in Africa. Reaching out to these farmers poses a number of challenges, one of them being the limited internet coverage in rural areas of Africa. The Facebook satellite would have potentially connected millions of Africans to high-speed internet, giving them access to a world of knowledge and opportunities. In addition, with a better internet coverage, sensor and other on the ground data can be collected much faster. Think of on-ground sensors that detect chainsaws or heat, which can expose illegal logging operations in real time.
Although the destruction of the Facebook/Internet.org satellite is a setback, there are other ways to connect smallholder farmers. For example, by using mobile apps with offline data storage capabilities, we can already overcome some of the challenges due to limited internet connectivity today. ChainPoint has developed an offline app that can collect data for several weeks or months and synchronizes as soon as an internet connection is available. Because only data is exchanged, limited internet bandwidth is needed. Future improvement in internet coverage will further improve real-time data gathering and communication, which will offer more potential ways to directly support smallholder farmers.
For now, we will just have to wait until the next satellite is ready. One thing is sure, improving internet coverage offers many opportunities to solve some of the most pressing issues in international supply chains in Africa and around the world.