Agritech: Smart agriculture for smallholders

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 2, 2020 - November 08, 2020.

"Leveraging technology such as cloud and artificial intelligence to analyse data will allow farms to be more profitable, efficient and environmentally friendly.” - Lian

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It is estimated that an average farm generates 500,000 data points per day, and this is expected to grow to four million data points by 2036, says Catherine Lian, managing director of IBM Malaysia. These data points cover things such as fertiliser and pesticide application rates, weather, soil nutrient content and harvesting dates.

This trove of data is important because if it is analysed with the help of technology, it can help agriculture industry players make informed decisions and increase productivity. Given the challenges that many farmers, especially smallholders, face currently, having such information is crucial.

“We all know that the agriculture industry is currently undergoing massive disruptions and facing severe challenges. They include increasingly volatile weather, climate change, environmental and regulatory pressures, a growing population and greater demand for food quality, land degradation and sustainability [concerns],” says Lian.

“Smart agriculture, which uses data and automation to help farmers address challenges, will be the way to go. Leveraging technology such as cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse data will allow farms to be more profitable, efficient and environmentally friendly.”

This transformation is made possible by the use of the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, analytics and AI to create actionable insights for farmers.

For instance, farmers will be able to receive data from satellites about the weather and topography of their land, and information about soil health from IoT devices. With this information, they can decide when is the best time to do planting, ploughing, spraying or harvesting.

“They could create more targeted irrigation strategies, identify the optimal time to plant certain types of seeds and recommend actions to prevent crop loss due to pests and diseases,” says Lian.

“With a better view of the fields, growers can make better decisions about crop health, pesticide and fertiliser application, as well as irrigation schedules. This improves yield, quality and sustainability while reducing costs.”

IBM uses its Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture to achieve these goals. The software creates an electronic field record (EFR) as the single source of truth for each farm, Lian explains, which is similar to electronic medical records in the healthcare industry.

The EFR contains weather data, soil data, equipment data gathered from IoT sensors in devices such as seed drills and sprayers, farm practice and workflow data gathered from growers, as well as high-definition visual imagery obtained from satellites, drones and fixed-wing aircraft.

“Once the data is gathered, Watson applies AI, machine learning and advanced analytics to extract valuable insights and automatically generates recommendations to help farmers make smarter decisions. A unified dashboard enables growers to easily visualise data and alerts related to critical elements such as weather forecasts, soil conditions, evapotranspiration rates and crop stress,” says Lian.

Most of the time, this kind of data is never analysed or used to derive insights, she adds. But agriculture industry players must understand that analysis is important to help them make more informed decisions about their crops.

“It can deliver benefits such as improved crop protection as it can proactively alert growers to critical daily crop stress levels, identify signs of pests and diseases and more effectively assess current risk levels of crops,” says Lian.

Supporting smallholder farmers 

In Malaysia, the agriculture sector is dominated by smallholder farmers, who face the problems of low productivity and crop yield, as well as the lack of manpower. Many reports and industry experts have observed that this sector is sorely in need of modernisation.

Consequently, IBM Malaysia is collaborating with the Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA) to introduce technologies such as AI, IoT, advanced analytics and blockchain to the agriculture sector.

“IBM and the SMA provide the farmers with training and education as well as the grants to adopt this technology. With reskilling and upskilling, I believe this will change the whole ecosystem of the state,” says Lian.

“Through smart farming, key agricultural challenges in the country can be mitigated, more people enticed to participate in the agriculture sector, local farmers helped to increase their income level and, most importantly, one of the most important economic sectors in the Malaysian economy transformed.”

However, can smallholder farmers afford to adopt new technologies? Lian says smallholder farmers may opt for more traditional farming methods owing to the investments required to adopt smart agriculture.

“This is where the government can provide assistance. By expanding favourable financial schemes, it can enable farmers to upgrade and modernise their farms. IBM, as a technology partner and with our experience in implementing solutions in this sector, is open to collaborating with the relevant agency and ministry to encourage and help farmers put smart agriculture into practice,” says Lian.

Blockchain and agriculture

Interestingly, blockchain technology can also play an important role in modernising the industry. This has to do with consumers’ rising demand for food traceability. It is also an area that IBM is working on with SMA using its Food Trust system.

“It’s a cloud-based solution based on IBM blockchain. IBM Food Trust uses the blockchain to connect participants through a transparent, permanent and shared record of food origin details, processing data, shipping details and more,” says Lian.

Authorised users can use the solution to access food supply chain data, from the farm to the store and consumer. It includes the complete history and current location of any food item, she adds, along with accompanying information such as certifications, test data and temperature.

“The solution provides participants with permission-based, shared view of food ecosystem information, allowing convenient data publishing and controlled sharing of information. To achieve this goal, the Food Trust solution enables participants to enter and control access to their encrypted blockchain data,” says Lian.

This means that transaction partners can only access the data they have permission to view. In addition, the data can be put into the IBM Watson Decision Platform as part of the smart agriculture platform.

“Building traceability and transparency in complex supply chains isn’t easy, but it can be done in Malaysia through blockchain technology, as it offers a continual way to monitor and report the impact to consumers,” says Lian.

Free entrepreneur training by BAC

Brickfields Asia College (BAC) has just launched a free training initiative called Project Entrepreneur.

It aims to train up to 10,000 Malaysian entrepreneurs, free of charge. The programme comprises 15 two-and-a-half-hour sessions, in addition to one masterclass taught by BAC Education Group founder Raja Singham.

“We can’t expect the government to do everything. We must pool our resources and work alongside the government to make a difference. This is why the initiative is fully funded by the BAC Education Group,” he said in a statement to Digital Edge.

Classes commence on Nov 3, and interested applicants may sign up at www.projectentrepreneur.asia.