Increasing food and agricultural production is set to be one of the big challenges of 2021 as COVID shone spotlight on the importance of food security and delivery. Yet, smallholders remain one of the most vulnerable groups in society. In 2019, there are more than 820 million people who experience chronic malnutrition in the world, with the number set to increase with the ongoing pandemic where the most vulnerable group will suffer. In addition to alleviating hunger, the agricultural sector also fights against poverty with poor livelihood of smallholder farmers. Incomes have dropped due to lower food prices and supply chain disruptions.
Digitalization will be a core pillar in solving the food crisis. The international digital council for food and agriculture, approved by 75 ministers of agriculture who participated in the Global Forum for Food 2020 and Agriculture (GFFA) will support the adoption of digitalization of farms, including using drones and smart sensors.
But the road ahead remains challenging. While innovations have the potential to transform the industry, adoption remains far from reality.
Connectivity is limited
For starters, it is no secret that connectivity is poor in farmland. Isolated and sparsely populated, there are only 50 people per square kilometre compared to over 1,000 per square kilometre in urban areas. The network availability drops from 89.7% in urban to 76% in rural areas, quickly eroding down to under 30% in the remote regions.
Without connectivity, the traditional backbone of smart sensors using 4G or Wifi quickly crumbles. Farmers are unable to utilise these technologies, and will be left stranded. Yet, this is a problem that could be solved. In the past, we have experimented with deploying alternative long ranged connectivity solutions which are inexpensive in general. By leveraging on the Lorawan network, we had managed to connect up to 20km with a single gateway, which costs less than 1% of building a cellular tower.
Connectivity issues are always a constant problem for technologies that are dependent on it, but it can be solved.
Lack of funds
Smallholders in SouthEast Asia usually own less than a hectare, earning under USD $2,000 per year. Take for example Pak Tejo, he owns 0.3 Ha of land and spends under 60 USD for pesticides per cycle. Net income for smallholders can be under 2000 USD per annum. With that small amount of spending power, sustenance is of priority, not productivity and that downwards spiral in productivity continues.
As such, it is important for tech companies to find ways in making digitalisation solutions affordable. One of the ways that we tried to do so is to work actively with agriculture input companies such as the chemical producers, seed producers and financing companies. With collaboration with these companies, it helps in benefitting long term as there would be a collective effort in helping these smallholder farmers in solving funding issues, yet increase in crop productivity.
Trust in technology
Accustomed to using tools and equipment they are familiar with; it requires a different mindset to use data-driven tools. Farmers must relearn and upskill and the unfamiliar territory. We find farmers are generally quite open to new technology if it can bring immediate benefits to their work.
For example, drones have been widely welcomed by smallholder farmers for spraying of fertilizers and pesticides. This is because that the benefits of using these drones could be felt immediately, since it could cut down on manpower cost of spraying up to 20%, and could cover the grounds over 30 times faster than manual labor. In addition, humans are the medium for a number of disease transmission as they walk through the fields. Drones, on the other hand, avoid the problem by aerial spraying while achieving equivalent or better results.
In such instances, it is easier for smallholder farmers to embrace and trust these technologies. However, if the benefits are intangible or long term, it becomes a much harder hurdle for adoption. Using more expensive but environmentally friendly products has been an uphill fight, since it is harder for farmers to see how those products would benefit them.
However, we believe that this will change in the near future. Plagued by inaccessible and unreliable data over the years, the trust between farmers and organisations have started to break down. Transparency of information flow will be crucial in creating trust between parties, and over time, the benefits of digitalisation for long term benefits will come to light.
The challenges faced by smallholder farmers may seem difficult to overcome, but it is not impossible. Building trust definitely does not happen overnight. It is a social responsibility for technology platforms to serve as a foundation to facilitate trust for digitalisation. This is such that farmers can be assured that their interest will be taken care of while the agriculture input companies get their fair share of returns.
Interestingly, we are starting to see younger generations of farmers adopting and learning to operate these technologies. Instead of just having it settled for them, they now want to be part of the process in modernising farming. Hence, it is also up to the technology companies to provide training and education, and this is what we believe that should happen, in order to better use technology for a more sustainable future.
In view of this, there is more than just a glimmer of hope for embracing digital technology in the future. Moving forward, we envision the younger generations to take over with technology or even scale it further to serve their local communities, and we are hopeful that the scale would soon be balanced.
Wilson Ong serves in Avirtech as the Chief Operating Officer, working for the past 5 years with some of the largest agriculture companies in Asia to drive innovation and technology in plantations. During the period of Avirtech, Wilson has worked on developing solutions including planting trees with drones, precision spraying, crop management with multispectral imageries and enabling data transparency in agriculture. Avirtech is now trying to make precision agriculture affordable to all.
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