Smart agriculture and beyond

Published: March 13, 2017
The writer is a fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research

The writer is a fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research

Imagine a farmer calling a toll-free number to seek help regarding a pest attack on his farm. The call gets routed to an agriculture expert, sitting in the farmer’s own district. As soon as the expert picks up the farmer’s call on his tablet computer, a window pops up showing specific details including farmer’s education level, size of his farm and the cropping history. The expert clicks more buttons and can even view the soil characteristics of the farm, based on a soil test conducted recently, besides customised weather information and tube-well data. Based on all this information, the expert then offers suitable advice to the farmer and even sends a field extension agent to his doorstep for on-farm inspection and further support.

This is not a story from Australia, Europe or the USA and instead manifests the ultimate goal of an extension services modernisation project commissioned by Punjab’s Agriculture Department, through support from Punjab Information Technology Board. The ambitious Rs4 billion Extension 2.0 project, if successful, can make this dream come true in Pakistan.

Role of technology in agriculture is changing quickly, promising a revolution in agrarian economies, if harnessed effectively. SMART agriculture, a commonly used term for marriage of information and communication technology with agriculture, is not limited to this flagship project in Punjab. The Agriculture Department has also launched another project for providing e-credit to farmers, using their mobile phones, so that they can timely procure agriculture inputs. With free smartphones and internet data plans given to farmers, the whole disbursement and collection of credit undergoes through mobile wallets. Mobile applications are also being developed for farmers’ advisory services.

The agriculture sector contributes 27% to Punjab’s GDP and employs 40% of the labour force, providing a vital foundation for Punjab’s economic base. Punjab has 5.2 million farming families and 28 million acres of cultivable land spanning over 23,000 villages. Given the scale, only technology can help cover this vast base effectively.

However, it is easier said than done. In order to fully benefit from this paradigm shift, the government must explore use of technology throughout the agriculture value chain. While ICT-driven extension services and e-credit provide excellent starting point towards promoting SMART agriculture, these should be supplemented in future through embedding technology within areas like food and crop traceability improving readiness for exports, downstream market operations and electronic exchanges to fetch better value for farmers and digitised irrigation systems leading to precision agriculture. Use of rapidly evolving Internet of Things may lead to more efficient designs of ICT-extension services, avoiding the need for physical inspections and manual soil testing. At a broader level, the government should aim towards provision of integrated online public services, making it easier for citizens to interact with the government through digital interfaces and avoiding proliferation of isolated platforms and technologies.

On farmers’ end, digital illiteracy can play havoc with all such remarkable efforts. Without farmers being able to use smart phones, even the best of e-government services are likely to fail. While this aspect has been addressed by the Agriculture Department in some ways, the agenda of bridging the digital divide goes beyond the mandate of an individual sector, like agriculture, and must be owned and driven by the government across all sectors.

Last but not the least, the policymakers must realise that ICT itself is not going to provide answers to some of the fundamental challenges faced by the agriculture sector. While technology can be a strong enabler, the government would still need to undertake agriculture market reforms, improve the quality of its extension workforce, avoid untargeted subsidies, create an agile ad responsive organisational structure to respond to farmers’ needs and put in place an effective regulatory regime to exploit the agriculture sector’s potential.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2017.

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