Capacity-building seen as main bottleneck to digitalizing agriculture

THE major bottleneck to digitalizing agriculture is capacity-building in the communities where new technology is targeted for adoption, analysts said.

“Capacity-building is always a challenge, especially when it comes to digital,” Henry James M. Sison, founder and chief farming officer of startup Agro-DigitalPH, said on Tuesday in a webinar organized by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture.

“Digital, in this context, needs to match the target locations. Adoption is on the basis of them being able to monetize what they have. You need to shepherd these communities,” he added.

Noppadon Khiripet, principal researcher at the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center in Thailand, said that “every technology that we build needs to have a specific user in mind.”

Jose Ildefonso U. Rubrico, professor at the Department of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science at the University of the Philippines Mindanao, also noted the importance of capacitating cooperatives and partner institutions on how to use specific tools and technology.

Mr. Sison said that Agro-DigitalPH “starts by organizing communities into an association and cooperative; once this is done, it’s easier to leverage existing extension services in place. We don’t want to do something from scratch. We see the industry as an entire ecosystem, so if there are entities that provide production intervention and other types of programs, we usually partner with line agencies of the government to get these communities up to speed,” he said.

Some effort must also be expended in persuading the target communities to adopt technology, he added.

“How do you tell farmers and fishers that digital is the direction? It’s a hard sell. It’s a matter of working with community developers and training the trainers so they are the ones who talk on our behalf. We believe in building enterprises in the localities,” Mr. Sison said.

“Sometimes, some people in these communities have suspicions. It’s unavoidable that these things happen. That’s why it’s helpful to have people they know like someone from the Provincial Agriculture Office (PAGRO) to help out,” Mr. Rubrico added.

Mr. Sison also recommended the creation of a national, regional, or community database to monitor planting schedules and monitor prices.

“Farmers have to let the government understand what they’re planting for the season so that the governing body can say if we’ve planted too much of this thing, so we avoid peaks of supply or if we don’t have any at all. If this information is made public, we can stabilize prices,” he added.

Technology such as drones, satellites, and remote-sensing can help farmers make better data-driven decisions.

“For smallholder farms, just getting a bird’s eye view of their farm is a big deal. It makes it easier for them to visualize what’s happening and to identify the boundaries between cooperative members. It can also be useful in asking for assistance from government agencies; it can be used as proof (of farming activity),” Mr. Rubrico said.

In Thailand, Mr. Noppadon said that farmers use satellite images to monitor major crops like sugarcane or cassava with a high degree of accuracy.

Mr. Sison said the Agro-DigitalPH platform offers production management modules to integrate and record crops.

“What’s been a challenging experience for us is translating what a value chain is and telling your smallholder farmer how to consolidate and coordinate planning schedules and giving them the background on post-harvesting, to make sure the goods coming out can be easily bought,” he said.

“Without even technology, increasing productivity was already an alien concept to them. This is the reality on the ground,” he added. — Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson