ICT in Agriculture: Future-proofing Our Farms

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According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), for 2018-19 (provisional estimate), crops, livestock, fisheries, and forest products account for about 30 percent of Bangladesh’s total GDP and employ approximately 52 percent of the total population. The agriculture sector continues to be one of the most important pillars of our economy, ensuring adequate food supply for the growing population. However, it is confronted with the significant challenge of increasing production to feed a growing and increasingly prosperous population in a situation of decreasing availability of natural resources.

Factors of particular concern are water shortages, declining soil fertility, climate change effects, and the rapid decrease of fertile agricultural lands due to urbanization. Concurrently, the growing demand, including for higher quality products, also offers opportunities for improving the livelihoods of rural communities.

Realizing these opportunities requires compliance with more stringent quality standards and regulations for producing and handling agricultural produce. New approaches and technical innovations are required to cope with these challenges and to enhance the livelihoods of the rural population.

 

ICT IN AGRICULTURE

The role of ICT to enhance food security and support rural livelihoods is increasingly recognized and was officially endorsed at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) 2003-2005. It includes the use of computers, the internet, geographical information systems, mobile phones, and traditional media such as radio or TV. Although it is a relatively new phenomenon, evidence of ICT contribution to agricultural development and poverty alleviation is becoming increasingly available.

ENHANCING PRODUCTION

Increasing the efficiency, productivity, and sustainability of small-scale farms is an area where ICT can significantly contribute. Farming involves risks and uncertainties, with farmers facing many threats from poor soils, drought, erosion, and pests. Key improvements stem from pest and disease control information, especially early warning systems, new varieties, new ways to optimize production, and quality control regulations.

IMPROVING MARKET ACCESS

Latest market information on prices for commodities, inputs and consumer trends can improve farmers’ livelihoods substantially and have a dramatic impact on their negotiating position. Such information is instrumental in making decisions about future crops and commodities and about the best time and place to sell and buy goods. Subsequently, accurate and timely information enables farmers to enjoy higher yields and ensure higher revenue generation.

CAPACITY-BUILDING AND EMPOWERMENT

Information and Communications Technology can strengthen our agricultural infrastructure and facilitate better negotiation of input and output prices, land claims, resource rights, and infrastructure projects. It will allow farmers to interact with other stakeholders, reducing social isolation.

The use of information technology widens local communities’ perspective in terms of national or global developments, opens up new business opportunities, and allows easier contact with friends and relatives, making processes more efficient and transparent. Technology like the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) linked to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), digital cameras, and the internet will enable stakeholders in the sector to make better decisions.

VISION 2021: TOWARDS DIGITIZING AGRICULTURE

Over the last decade, the ICT sector in Bangladesh experienced remarkable growth. The current government’s vision of Digital Bangladesh enabled the mass penetration of digital services across the country. Our national development framework, Vision 2021, aims to transform Bangladesh into a middle-income country by 2021 and attain self-sufficiency in food production. This framework gives overall direction to extension and advisory services, and incorporating ICT in agricultural activities is an integral part of the growth strategy.

According to the Planning Commission, selected agricultural goals of Vision 2021 with implications for the extension include achieving self-sufficiency in rice production, water management for irrigation, and focus on crops suitable for each geographic area. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digitization are viewed as essential tools for extending extension’s reach. However, our agricultural research intensity as a percentage of the aggregate GDP stood at only 0.38%, one of the lowest among developing countries.

IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS AND PROSPECTS

Over the years, the USAID and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and has also reinforced Big Data Analytics for Climate-Smart Agriculture in South Asia projects. Under this project, capacity building and training were imparted to 125 Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) agents to use tablets for gathering agronomic information of rice and wheat farmers across Bangladesh.

This pioneering pilot effort began in late 2019; so far, extension workers have collected data from over 5,000 farmers, with detailed information on climate responses, including the management of soil, water, and variety used to understand what drives productivity. The DAE is enthused about learning from the data and plans to collect information from 7,000 more farmers by the end of 2020.
The use of mobile applications can help farmers anticipate and respond to pest attacks, crop failures, and climatic changes through timely weather-based agro-advisory messages, reducing market distortions, and assisting farmers in planning production processes.

The importance of ERP software in agriculture is high because it can streamline the entire value chain from procurement -production-distribution. This empowers growers and related businesses to respond more organically to the supply chain’s external challenges, environment, or excess demand by adjusting the systems accordingly. Artificial Intelligence (AI) in farming enables producers to scan their fields and monitor each production cycle stage.

Utilizing such tools not only improves resource use but also enhances remote maintenance and quick decision making. Considering the various government initiatives and Private Public models being proposed in agriculture and aquaculture, digitizing the supply chains seems to be looking upward for the agriculture landscape in Bangladesh.

CHALLENGES

The primary challenge of digitizing the agriculture sector is the disproportionate access to technology. Although the number of smartphone users in rural areas is on the rise, a small number of them are being used in agricultural activities. Concurrently, the costs associated with the use of technologies often discourage farmers from using ICT. Significant investment is required to incentivize the adaptation of technology and capacity building. The development of ICT infrastructure must ensure reduced overhead costs and efficiency to encourage transformation. Finding an appropriate business model is also a challenge.

In general, most of the users do not want to pay for an application. Access to finance for farming and agriculture is a critical challenge for the farmers. However, technology can bring transparency and data to enable and unlock capital for agriculture and farming. Finally, it is essential to develop skilled human resources to ensure technology is used accurately and efficiently. Our education sector needs to implement policies that will produce skilled graduates in data analysis and innovative technology.

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