Digitisation of agriculture sector | Sunday Observer

Digitisation of agriculture sector

3 September, 2023

In the modern world, in almost all developed countries and even in many developing countries, the image of the ageing, weathered farmer toiling away in the fields, enduring hardships, is no more.

The world is steadily moving forward with technology at a rapid pace. Globally, with technology assisting in most of the manual tasks, the role of the farmer in agriculture has changed. Through technology, farmers keep finding ways to improve their harvest by taking data input and optimising every little detail.

Sri Lanka, with its rich agricultural heritage and diverse crops, stands at the brink of a transformative journey through the digitisation of its agriculture supply chain. Embracing digital technologies in this sector holds immense potential to overcome challenges, enhance efficiency, and contribute to the country’s economic growth and food security.

Various challenges

Currently, Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector faces various challenges, including limited access to timely information, inefficient resource management, post-harvest losses, colossal waste in transport, rapidly changing climatic conditions, and difficulties in connecting farmers with markets.

These issues hinder the sector’s growth and often result in income disparities among farmers. The country is precariously slow in adopting mechanised farming compared to many other countries in the world. A notable flaw in the modernising effort and the expansion of the sector is the evident absence of private investment due to uncertain policies that constantly change depending on the ruling governments.

Ironically, right through recent history, modernisation efforts were marred by difficulties in setting up a lasting and firm policy framework, predominantly due to ego-centric political manipulations and the influence of unscrupulous politicians and corrupt bureaucrats.

The political culture in Sri Lanka is such that whenever authorities attempt to modernise, Opposition politicians customarily oppose or dispute it under the popular slogan “the country has bigger issues.”

It is most unfortunate that these devious politicians and their gullible followers fail to understand that almost all countries move forward by solving both pressing and elementary issues simultaneously, if they are nationally important.

However, in a fresh attempt, the Government, under the auspices of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has proposed a plan to establish an agriculture modernisation task force as a priority to initiate comprehensive agriculture reforms.

The modernisation will extend to the agricultural support system, including technical expertise, market linkages, and the adoption of advanced technologies.

The call is for the modernisation of various components of the agricultural support system, including technical expertise, market linkages, and the adoption of advanced technologies.

This support system is to play a pivotal role in empowering farmers to embrace modern practices and technologies, thereby boosting productivity and sustainability.

Unless customary resistance from opportunistic political parties abstains from intervening and unsettling the process, the introduction of technology will positively change the agriculture trend in the country forever. However, those who spearhead the program also must be uncorrupt, genuine, and honestly believe that embracing digital technologies in this sector holds immense potential to overcome challenges, enhance efficiency, and contribute to the country’s economic growth and food security.

The introduction of digital technology to the country’s agriculture sector is no longer a mere requirement but an absolute necessity.

Transformative solution

The advent of digital technologies offers a transformative solution to many agriculture-related issues of the country by digitising the agriculture supply chain, which includes farmers, transporters, warehouses, retailers, suppliers, consumers, and all other stakeholders and processes.

Digitisation introduces a new level of efficiency and accuracy to every stage of the agriculture supply chain. From planting and harvesting to processing and distribution, digital technologies can restructure and streamline operations, optimise resource allocations, and reduce waste.

Real-time data collection and analysis enable farmers to make informed decisions about more effective planting times, irrigation schedules, and crop protection measures, leading to higher crop production.

Digital technologies aid in journey planning in transport, the monitoring of vehicle movements, and the tracking of deliveries in logistics and distribution. By decreasing the time between harvest and delivery, the shelf life of perishable products can be extended, lowering losses, and boosting product quality.

Automation in processing and packaging facilities can speed up production while reducing human error and ensuring uniform product quality.

Warehousing waste is a significant issue in Sri Lanka’s agriculture management. Digital warehousing and logistics operations are rapidly becoming an absolute necessity for agriculture, not only to improve their bottom line but also to maintain a strong competitive edge.

Warehouse digitalisation can maximise efficiency and productivity while reducing costs. This can be achieved through real-time tracking solutions that allow for accurate inventory.

With concerted training and awareness campaigns through existing agrarian services centres and other related Government institutions, the industry can be inspired to utilise technology to achieve accurate inventory management, packing, and transporting of the crop.

It was revealed that the post-harvest wastage of fruits and vegetables during handling and transportation is approximately 450 million kilograms (450,000 tonnes) annually, and as a result, the loss to the Sri Lankan economy is said to be around 20 billion. In addition to manual handling, a considerable portion of the waste occurs due to unnecessary downtime and inefficient usage of vehicles.

Digital applications can assist in improving fleet efficiency, resource management, and communication between farmers, transporters, and vendors. An AI-enhanced system can store information about the available space in vehicles, collect requests on the number of goods that need to be transported and their destination, and then calculate the preferable route, determining how to fit the goods from different vendors into vehicles effectively.

The salient factor is that digitalisation of agriculture in Sri Lanka is a gradual process that occurs across a broad spectrum and will take considerable time to be fully operational and flawless. Hence, the process must be the conclusive policy of the country, not the incumbent Government or future governments.

A few years ago, no one anticipated that farmers would use mobile devices to communicate. Today, most farmers, both young and old, use SMS, voice messaging, and other popular social media platforms to give and receive information.

Mobile apps provide a convenient way for farmers to access information, receive alerts, and manage their operations on the go. These apps can offer weather forecasts, pest alerts, and market prices, among other features. This phenomenon is certainly an extremely optimistic factor in digitising agriculture.

According to available information, with the newly proposed modernisation plan, public institutions related to the sector are planning to offer mobile-based integrated agriculture advisory services, plant protection services, weather forecasting, research information flow, farm machinery information, and many other useful tools. The reforms will be implemented through the existing agriculture-related Government institutions.

Timely decisions

Successful agriculture is based on a series of correct decisions and choices. Timely decisions such as when to plant, how to plant them, when to harvest them, which partners to work with, what prices to charge, and so on.

Digital technology gives farmers detailed insights to better understand their performance and make more informed decisions. It’s also important to note that with digitisation, more data is available than ever before, making farming decision-making easier.

The food system in Sri Lanka desperately needs transformation. Emerging technological innovations have the potential to overcome the structural weaknesses of current agricultural systems and deliver a more productive, competitive, and sustainable outcome using a more precise and resource-efficient approach.

The digitisation of the agriculture reforms represents a significant opportunity to transform the industry. Through enhanced efficiency, data-driven insights, improved traceability, supply chain transparency, minimised environmental impact, increased access to finance and markets, and effective risk management, agriculture can become more sustainable, resilient, and capable of feeding a growing population and the impending global food crisis, where Sri Lanka will have restricted access to food imports.