Digitize agriculture
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - August 30, 2019 - 12:00am

Everything is going digital. With possession of a mobile phone almost universal, the challenge is there to make life easier by going digital… and that includes farming.

Indeed, farmers have much to gain if they are able to use digital technology. It has, for example, the potential of unshackling farmers from the tight grip of the traditional traders who dictate prices of their produce.

Information is power, and digital technology will deliver that power to our farmers. By giving them access to the latest market prices and other market information, the ability of small farmers to negotiate with traders is increased.

One other benefit is giving small farmers the opportunity to sell to larger markets. A digital marketplace for farm produce that operates the way Amazon does widens an ordinary farmer’s options.

Credit is always a problem for our farmers. Digital technology through a mobile phone app can provide convenient and secure ways for farmers to purchase farm inputs and avail of credit from legitimate sources.

Actually, there is a lot happening in farm digitization. They are now using data to ensure cost effective use of fertilizers and pesticides, soil analysis sensors, field robots and drones, among others.

One of the more fascinating use of digital technology in the farm is, believe it or not, facial recognition for cows. With digital cameras, facial recognition software for dairy farms has been developed that can memorize the face of a cow in six seconds. It can also monitor the activity of an entire herd without wearable tracking devices.

Digitization in agriculture immediately helps our farmers make better decisions through better access to information and resources.

We should be encouraged to know that the Department of Agriculture now has a Digital Farmers Program. It is designed to help the farmers and their next of kin learn enough about the use of technology for their agricultural activities.

“The farmers who have grown old and wise in agriculture bring their grandchildren who are adept in using mobile phones and other tech gadgets to help bridge the gap. Their individual interests will bring better opportunities for them as a family, and us as a nation,” an agriculture official said.

The program is divided into three parts: DFP 101- Crowdsourcing, DFP 201- Introducing Apps for Agriculture, and DFP 103- Marketing.

The last course also aims to engage the participants with the private sector so they can establish networks. I imagine this helps establish links between buyers of farm products with big institutional users like hotels, restaurants and food manufacturers.

Beng Pangan of Air 21 was telling me that something like this already exists. Air 21 picks up farm produce as backhaul in their refrigerated vans and delivers the produce at the Quiapo market where institutional buyers source their requirements.

Anyway, the government’s initial attempt in agricultural digitization is ongoing initially in four sites in Laguna, Batangas, Cavite, and Quezon. LGUs can study these pioneering areas and replicate to serve their own constituents. The program is in partnership with Smart Communications.

Over dinner two weeks ago, two executives of Google in the Philippines told me that they are also working on an easy to use mobile phone app that our farmers can use to access basic market information, notably prices of farm commodities.

Still on development, the Google app should probably also link up farmers with funding institutions like the Landbank for their credit needs. That will free the farmers from the control of loan sharks who have preyed on them for generations.

At the moment, Google is already providing free access to the internet through WiFi in more than 400 locations across the country. The project is part of Google’s Next Billion Users initiative that aims to connect Filipinos to more opportunities through reliable internet access.

The Google officials said they aim to set up Google stations in more locations nationwide so Filipinos can connect to opportunities and benefit from the growing digital economy. The Google station is a fast, free and open public WiFi service in partnership with Smart.

Google is currently providing the free WiFi access through its submarine cable connecting us to the rest of the world. I asked about Google’s project to use satellites and balloons to provide wider internet connectivity. I am told they are waiting for our Congress to pass the Open Access Bill because that would make things simpler for them.

I googled and found out that a Google subsidiary, Loon LLC, is working on providing internet access to rural and remote areas. The company uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 18 km to create an aerial wireless network.

Users of the service connect to the balloon network using a special internet antenna attached to their building. The signal travels through the balloon network from balloon to balloon, then to a ground-based station connected to an internet service provider (ISP), then onto the global internet.

Some smartphones with Google SIM cards can use Google internet services directly. The whole infrastructure is based on LTE; the equivalent of the “base station” that talks directly to handsets is carried in the balloon.

Once the open access bill is passed, Google can directly connect our farmers to the internet with no need of local telcos, which in all likelihood are not operating in the remote farm areas anyway.

If Sen. Ralph Recto did not block the passage of the Open Access Bill in the last Congress, our farmers would probably be benefiting from that Google service by now. Hopefully, Recto doesn’t throw roadblocks on the bill’s passage again.

These are exciting times. If our agriculture officials are truly on the ball, change will surely come to benefit our farmers, improve our agricultural productivity and finally lift our farmers out of poverty.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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