Applying ICT in agriculture

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DR. WILLIAM DAR 

DR. WILLIAM DAR

By 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.2 billion, which will require food production to be increased by about 60 percent. This is no easy task.

With arable lands shrinking due to urbanization and climate change presenting numerous challenges to produce food from existing farms, there is a need to cascade proven technologies in farming and fishing communities, especially those with small holdings, to increase yield and incomes.

There are two things that come to my mind when farmers are faced with adversities based on actual experience honed and grown at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) when I was heading it as the Director General for 15 years. One is the need to continuously invest in talents and, two, is to leverage information and communications technology or ICT-mediated knowledge sharing and extension services to serve the poorest of the poor, especially in dryland agriculture.

So let me discuss the two subjects in an integrated manner (instead of going through them separately).
Sad to say that traditional extensions systems are fast becoming obsolete and inadequate when it comes to infrastructure and human resources. In parts of Africa, for example, one Agricultural Extension Officer must service the needs of thousands of farmers. And it may not be a far different situation in the Philippines.

During the Green Revolution, farm extension services helped boost crop production because of the accessibility of field specialists servicing the need of farmers. But the agricultural sector today faces numerous challenges such as urbanization, climate change, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, water crisis and population explosion.

To help farmers cope up and boost crop production, knowledge can be disseminated to farmers through the use of ICT- mediated means, which was one of the programs put into place when I headed ICRISAT.

Called “ICT for Development (ICT4D) -Taking Science Knowledge to the Farmers,” the program was aimed at applying the latest technological innovations in farming that would significantly benefit small holders.

One of the initiatives of the ICT4D program was the Open Access Repository (OAR) that provides an easy interface for researchers, practitioners and web-connected farmers, which was built on research conducted at ICRISAT. Stakeholders from more than 100 countries have so far accessed information from the OAR, which proves that there is a need for more up-to-date and relevant information on agriculture, especially among smallholder farmers.

In the Philippines, I see the urgent need to put in place a far-reaching ICT for agriculture given that only the first 1.5 million of the more than 5.5 million registered small holder farmers are adequately served by traditional extension work and agricultural programs.

But this cannot be simply done by technology itself such as developing a storage of information, sharing a pool of databases or conveniently providing computers to farming communities without the need for a human “intermediary.” Babbling with technology is one important component but getting the message across and mobilizing people for collective action is the key to development. Hence, generators of information and recipients of the “know-how” (such as integrated pest management) must understand the “know-why” in adopting the technology as well as sensitize organization members on why they should buy-in so as to “efficiently” improve farm productivity.

How can this be made more inclusive rather than reactionary and prescriptive? The bottom-up exercise involving local volunteers participating in such grassroots project require immersion to be a credible intermediary, strong community participation during rapid rural appraisals and collective participation during data gathering to have a sense of ownership would be useful in establishing sustainable ICT projects in agriculture.

Second, it is very important to understand ICT as a tool for action where the Internet of Things (IOT) pervasively overtakes traditional means of mass communication. IOT talks of connectivity, precision and networking such that understanding of what works best in a given situation requires a judicious blend of culture and modern technologies. How the social media can bring about collective action to bring farm innovation to the next level of productivity is still an area that can be harnessed, possibly by targeting the so-called millennials and young farmers.

Third, is the production of “usable information” to augment the way farmers and fishers transact their day-to-day businesses such as weather advisory services and market information. This also includes the “localization” and “customization” of content that befits the need of farmers in various localities, cropping zones and extent of operations in relation to crop production and agribusiness.

Last and most important, is the need to develop frontliners who can provide extension services beyond the 8-to-5 call of duty as can be seen in our LGU extension workers.

ICT for agriculture is a key enabler and a basic tool to effectively reach the unserved farmers and fishers. It is only by fielding a cadre of grassroots-based “knowledge intermediaries” who can work round-the-clock with rural communities and assist them from the most simple ways of “knowing how” to gather soil and water samples for testing, to the more cumbersome production of inputs and application of soil amendments for efficient plant nutrient management.

So far, there have been great strides made in the application of ICT in various fields and sectors like medicine, defense, travel, energy, communications, and commerce, among others. And it makes me wonder as to how the miracles of ICT can’t cascade down to farming/fishing communities and to the bottom of the pyramid.

Farmers and fishers are also seekers of information and if the lack of information deters them from engaging into simple farm innovation, they revert back to traditional knowledge which at times are unreliable due to harsh environments and changing market conditions.

Agriculture, especially in the Philippines, need to innovate, evolve and scale-up relative to societal needs and must be able to do so by leveraging knowledge-based resources, market information and using scientific approaches not only to increase production levels and incomes, but to mainstream small holder farmers and fishers to local/regional agribusiness value chains. This can be achieved by the application of ICT, IOT and strong human resource development.

This does not mean, however, that traditional extension services be supplanted by ICT-enabled solutions. Rather, present extension services can be vastly improved with the use of appropriate technologies for performance monitoring, information-sharing and knowledge generation in agriculture.

For me, it is not hard to imagine a small holder farmers/fishers getting conversant on production technologies, product standards, pricing and markets — once the intermediaries, i.e. ICT-mediated tools and service extension worker are within reach! The use of ICT in making agriculture a business (rather than mere subsistence) can be better positioned to attract more young people to get their hands and feet wet in the fields and relish the fruits of their investments by getting into modernized agriculture.

ICRISAT under my leadership has proven that ICT in agriculture can transform lives, liberate the poor from hunger, and empower those in poverty as productive and progressive partners in sustainable rural development.

And finally, let me thank President Rodrigo Duterte togther with the Junior Chamber International (JCI) Senate Philippines and ANSA Foundation Inc. for the TOFIL award given to me on December 12, 2016 in Malacañang. This award gives me the inspiration to do more for small farmers and fisher folk.

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1 Comment

  1. I think we are making strides in applying ICT to agriculture especially in rice here in our country. We can checkout the efforts made in PRISM (https://www.philippinericeinfo.ph/) and the DA supported decision tool Rice Crop Manager (http://webapps.irri.org/ph/ras/). These tools can be of great help to policy makers and also to farmers by providing them data and science-based recommendations to help increase their yield.