Drones and other agri tech solutions won't work unless there's more education. Source: Shutterstock

Drones and other agri tech solutions won’t work unless there’s more education. Source: Shutterstock

UN’s FAO sheds light on the enablers of digital transformation in agriculture

AGRICULTURAL technology is an up and coming area of business.

For regulators, farmers, and businesses, it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity because, for the first time in more than a 100 years, it’s possible to improve production and bring a certain degree of confidence to transparency and traceability operations.

Consumers are excited by the prospects too. In some parts, traceability and transparency that blockchain and IoT bring will help organic farmers and local producers finally get the premium they deserve. In other markets, drones and IoT will make it easier to produce more per hectare, feeding more mouths than ever before.

However, as easy as it sounds, the reality is that the digital transformation of agriculture is still a few years away.

According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, there are three key enablers that regulators, businesses, and producers must work on together in order to prepare for the digital transformation of agriculture:

# 1 | Use of digital technologies among rural populations and farmers

The most important thing when discussing the digital transformation of agriculture is the availability of a stable internet connection.

In parts of the world where there’s strong support from the government, telcos are working on building better communication technologies such as LoRaWAN to facilitate the flow of data between low-powered sensors and data hubs on large farms in rural areas of the country. Australia and China are examples of two such countries.

However, in some of the countries in Asia, access to the internet is still quite limited, especially in rural areas.

According to the FAO, although almost half of the world’s population is now using the internet, this is disproportionately in developed nations. In the least developed countries, only one out of seven people use the internet and there are apparent disparities between rural and urban areas.

The study suggests that since literacy rates are low in rural areas, the use of mobile phones and social media (when accessible) tends to be focused on communication rather than gaining knowledge about digital agriculture applications or acquiring skills to use e-commerce and online financial or governmental services.

In any country where the digital transformation of agriculture is a priority, companies and governments must focus on improving access to the internet and facilitating a knowledge-acquisition mindset.

# 2 | Digital skills among rural populations

While creating the infrastructure needed to provide internet access to farmers in rural areas, it’s also important to simultaneously work on building skills among populations in those regions to ensure they can make the most of the technology once it arrives.

The FAO study highlights why this might be an uphill battle.

It says that digitalization creates demand for digital skills and for people who are competent in using digital devices, understanding outputs, and developing programs and applications.

Since this demands more than basic literacy and numeracy, in populations where such skills are lacking, education must fill a huge gap, accelerating the dissemination of ICT skills incredibly rapidly, while ensuring learners can keep up.

The FAO also points out that digital transformation in the agriculture sector will change the structure of the labor market and the nature of work, which will impact the role of farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs (agripreneurs) and alter the skill set required to thrive.

Further, it may also transform how and where people work, which means those that work on farms in rural areas need to quickly learn new digital skills in order to stay employed.

The emphasis of the study, however, is to say that agricultural communities that are able to pick up digital skills quickly will definitely thrive in the new digital era.

# 3 | Digital agripreneurial and innovation culture

Historically, farmers have sold their produce either to the government, a middle-man, or directly to consumers at markets nearby.

With globalization, large businesses got involved in the procurement, transportation, and supply of agricultural produce from one part of the world to the other — with the help of refrigerated containers and warehouses, and other modern, capital intensive solutions.

In the digital age, however, with e-commerce and digital business models picking up, farmers have a lot of opportunities in front of them — to grow their margins and deliver better produce through innovation.

The FAO’s report finds that modern-day farmers might be particularly suited to entrepreneurial activities.

“These days, farmers often design business plans, scout for funding, make use of farming enterprise ‘incubators’ and attend scientific conferences. Youth farmers, in particular, are also more likely to take risks in their farm management.”

At the end of the day, the UN FAO’s report does shed light on the opportunities that are opening up for farmers in rural areas as a result of the digital transformation of agriculture.

Although infrastructure and skills are lacking at the moment, those aren’t things that can’t be fixed. With support from local agencies and companies, government bodies could quickly pave the way for technology to disrupt and democratize agriculture in ways we couldn’t think of ever before.