Drones in the Bolivian Altiplano: a technological solution for farmers and the environment

Sustainable agriculture
Due to poor soil quality, pests and crop diseases, farmers in the high plateau in western Bolivia resort to using plant chemicals that are harmful to the environment as well as the health of producers and consumers. To address this issue, Swisscontact partnered with the private sector to introduce spray drones that use organic pesticides.

Due to the low amount of rain and the poor quality of the soils in the Bolivian Altiplano, the competitiveness and production rates in agriculture are very low. Crops are also affected by pests and diseases that cause losses of up to 35%, which, in turn, affects income. Because of this, farmers often use highly toxic chemicals inappropriately, resulting in the poisoning of the farmers and the accumulation of chemical residues in the crops. In this context, Swisscontact and Biotop, a private sector partner, suggested using bio drones – spray drones as a technological solution for pest control. These spray drones are adapted to the high altitude and use biological inputs.

Reduced costs and a healthier environment

Through the Inclusive Markets project, Swisscontact worked with Biotop LLC to evaluate the efficiency of the spray drones for the organic production of quinoa in the Bolivian Southern Altiplano. The pilot project took into consideration the climate, the height above sea level, the socioeconomic situation, and the available agricultural technology. From the point of view of a cost-benefit analysis in quinoa cultivation, the use of a spray drone costs US$ 40/ha compared to US$ 123/ha when the same operation is done using a manual backpack. This corresponds to 65% savings.

The use of technology such as drones offers great benefits for farmers:

  • Spraying in areas that are rugged or difficult to access.
  • Improves the efficiency and quality of the outputs.
  • Reduces the consumption of agricultural inputs by 20%, reduces labour costs, and improves crop profitability.
  • Helps protect the health of people who work in the field by avoiding direct exposure to agro-inputs.
  • Reduces the environmental impact and contamination by applying agro-inputs in a targeted manner that is adjusted to the real requirements of the crop.

After witnessing demonstrations of the drone in action, the Ministry of Agriculture included this technology in its innovation strategy for some of its projects that support agri-food production. The demand for fumigation drone technology among farmer organisations and export companies has kept on growing. 

Precision agriculture uses technology such as drones to enable farmers to make more precise decisions. This approach is aimed at reducing costs, improving the profitability of crops, and reducing the environmental impact by applying agro-inputs in a targeted manner and adjusted to the real requirements of the crops. Furthermore, since the average rainfall in the highlands is only 200 mm/year, these spray drones apply the active ingredients using very little water, helping to save this scarce resource.

Technology in the field: a gender issue

Yessica Yana, Bolivia's first indigenous Aymara woman drone pilot

Due to the socioeconomic conditions in Bolivia, the migration of men to the cities has meant that women and elderly people who stay behind must take on the management of their farms. This shift has made agricultural labour scarce and more expensive. It has also pushed production costs up, especially in the case of spraying for pest control and quinoa harvest. This situation generates a series of changes within families and people’s livelihoods as it implies a greater demand for women's time to be spent on farming and less on family responsibilities and their communal roles.  

Furthermore, the scarcity of fresh water, both for human consumption and for use in the fields, means that the farmers must carry water over long distances to do the spraying.

Research has shown that the use of drones to fumigate the crop saves up to 80% in water usage. This solution not only mitigates the impact of climate change in a fundamental way by increasing the availability of water but it also reduces the workload borne by women.

Inclusive Markets: supporting smallholder farmers in Bolivia since 2018

The Inclusive Markets project seeks to improve the living conditions of the people dedicated to agriculture and livestock, focusing especially on women and young people. These families, which live in the Altiplano and in the inter-Andean valleys of Bolivia, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and food insecurity.  

The drive to introduce a drone-driven fumigation service arose from the need to provide a cost-benefit solution that considers the climatic and labour limitations in the area while being affordable for the farmers.

Vulnerable contexts such as these require innovations that increase the economic, social, and environmental resilience of women and men, as this example shows. 

This project is implemented in Bolivia by Swisscontact, financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

Sustainable agriculture
Inclusive Markets in Bolivia
The main objective of the program is "to improve the living conditions of the target population by helping them reduce their poverty situation". The purpose is "to increase the opportunities, capacities and income of the target population".The Inclusive Markets project is implemented in Bolivia with funding from the Swiss Agency for Development and...