AgTech and Agricultural Innovation: An Absolute Necessity for Sri Lanka
By: Anuththara Peiris
There has never been a better time to empower the technological evolution of agriculture in Sri Lanka. On one hand we are facing the most devastating global crisis of our times which has paralysed the globalised economic models. On the other hand we’re also at quite a precarious position in terms of climate change vulnerability. Utilising modern technology to empower and incentivise agriculture is now a crucial move in facilitating our food security, land conservation, and economic sustainability.
What is AgTech?
AgTech, is the incorporation of technology into all forms of agriculture. If done right, AgTech has the potential to cause dramatic shifts in the economy. Especially, a country like Sri Lanka, which was once renowned as the ‘Granary of the East’ thanks to our historical relationship with agriculture and irrigation, has an elevated advantage in extracting the best of AgTech.
Incorporating technology into agriculture can range from using software such as farm management apps and VR and AR tools to hardware such as robots, sensors, drones etc. These tools are designed so that they’re multipurpose and can be applied in different ways to get the optimum benefits. For example, drone technology in farming can be used to analyse crop performance, identify weed species, perform NDVI analysis, prevent plant stress and even spray crops. When multiple AgTech tools are used together farmers will be able to derive the full benefits of what is known as ‘smart farming’.
The risk of food insecurity
Sri Lanka is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the South Asian subcontinent will be subject to a 2°C rise in temperature by 2050. The impact of these changes reach far and beyond just rising sea levels. Currently, 80 per cent of the domestic food supply in Sri Lanka comes from agriculture. Climate change is predicted to affect agriculture heavily, throwing millions of people into food insecurity.
Agricultural workers and poverty
Climate change is also expected to affect the living standards of those that depend on agriculture as a source of income. In Sri Lanka, a majority of agricultural workers suffer from poverty. A 2019 World Bank report, titled ‘Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture’, stated that agricultural innovation and technology holds the key to reducing poverty in developing countries. According to its data almost 80 per cent of the world’s extreme poor, reside in rural farming areas. They often rely on farming as their livelihood which in underdeveloped conditions, brings about minimal returns for these communities. Our own local situation is all the proof we need of this. While 25.5 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population is employed by the agricultural sector, it only contributes to seven per cent of the country’s GDP.
It’s clear that the economic return generated by this community is at a minimum level. If this imbalance continues to grow, workers will fall further into poverty by the time that climate change begins to manifest its most grave consequences. Food costs will also increase unbearably. Eventually it will endanger not only the living standards of workers but also the living and consumption standards of the entire population.
COVID-19 and the need for self-sustenance
Our dependence on international trade to facilitate our own economy is another reason as to why developing agriculture is a matter of urgency. Although sectors like tourism and foreign employment have injected millions into the local economy for years, COVID-19 stripped both sectors of their ability. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the country’s GDP shrank by 16.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 which was recorded as the biggest drop in Sri Lankan history. This drop was only followed by a mere 1.5 per cent positive growth rate in the third quarter. It is during this crisis that we came face-to-face with the reality that a self-dependent, internally powered system of production is much more resilient and sustainable.
Expanding on the previous statistic that modern agriculture only contributes to seven per cent of the country’s GDP, in contrast, the 1950s saw half of the labour force employed by agriculture, which in turn contributed to 46.3 per cent of the GDP. This was a time when our dependence on international trade was minimal due to Sri Lanka being a closed economy. With the advent of the open economy, we started weighing trade by comparative advantage and allowing that to regulate our economic activities. A negative side effect of this system was that we also let it dictate the growth and transformation of our economy, which for the most part was hindered and inhibited.
Foreign trade is a great means to access the necessary technology and expertise needed to build a powerful economy; It is not so much a long term solution to our lack of self-sustaining resources. Ideally we should have been able to keep international trade alive while also utilising it to fuel the growth of our economy to a point where it can stand on its own.
The sensible and comprehensive solution
By embracing, empowering, incentivising and promoting tech innovation in the field of agriculture on a local level, we’ve still got time to narrow the gap between the above problems and our potential in addressing them. For this we must invest time and funds in research, incentivise aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators through banks and other funding schemes, empower entrepreneurship and innovation through the education system, and work towards expelling the stigmatic myth that agriculture is an obsolete and defunct economic sector.
Driving AgTech and agricultural innovation in Sri Lanka
Three university students, T. Jeyjenthan, A. John and R. Miller created their pioneering product, SenzAgro, as a smart irrigation system in 2014. The three, who are founding members of Sri Lankan software company, SenzMate, have experienced firsthand the inefficiencies of traditional agriculture. Hailing from farming families in Jaffna, Jeyjenthan and Miller were inspired by their personal experiences to innovate something of value to the farmers of tomorrow.
SenzMate COO, R. Miller believes that creating awareness among farming communities is key to building a stronger AgTech culture in Sri Lanka. And the way to do this is by creating technology adoption networks through government bodies and authorities. He elaborates that the most trusted touch points for individual farmers in Sri Lanka are these government bodies and extension officers. Therefore It is these authorities that hold responsibility for spreading awareness among farming communities and granting them affordable access to innovative agricultural technology.
Miller sees it appropriate to adopt a B2B model where technologies are sold to organisations and government bodies, rather than to individual farmers. He compares our situation against agriculture in countries like Israel, where individual farmers own huge acres of land and are able to make independent decisions about technology adoption. According to him, this same model would be futile if implemented in Sri Lanka since the average farmer owns about 0.8 acres of land and hence does not have the power or the money to constantly adopt and employ innovative technology, as needed to create a smart farming culture. Hence, it makes sense that larger organisations are given access to new technologies, who can then manage their deployment and utilisation in farm clusters and networks.
Miller points out that making this a reality in Sri Lanka isn’t a difficult goal anymore. The Government’s enthusiasm towards developing agriculture is growing and the ministry of agriculture has already identified principles to be followed in achieving these goals. The Ministry has introduced mobile apps that guide farmers to pick out crops that need to be planted at a given period of time by taking into consideration criteria such as climate and market demand. Such apps have been designed to address a prevailing problem in Sri Lankan agriculture. A lot of local farmers in the country tend to grow the same crops which result in an excess supply during harvesting seasons.
This causes prices to come down resulting in a lower profit margin for farmers. On the other hand, crops with low supply during these seasons become too expensive for consumers to bear, due to high demand and black market pricing. However, the Ministry reveals that these mobile apps currently have a questionable rate of adoption. To boost adoption and tap into the full potential of such technology, Sri Lankan Media too should fulfil their responsibility of spreading awareness among farming communities and related authorities.
Miller from SenzMate also believes that it is essential to create awareness among farmers about the existing climate change as well as food insecurity issues in Sri Lanka. This also plays a key role in stimulating the enthusiasm of farmers to commit to changing their traditional ways and being more active in seeking change. He elaborates that we still have a long way to go in improving water utilisation, chemical utilisation, agricultural practices etc.
Technology, he says, is what is needed to make sure that these changes come through, “We need someone to raise awareness and inform these communities on what happens if we continue to turn a blind eye to agricultural development and agtech”. Miller also leaves an important message to aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators of Sri Lanka, asking them to consider the impending doom of climate change and encouraging them to act by investing their time and capital in our agricultural technology industry. He says, “Whenever there is a problem, if you can solve it, then that’s your best startup idea”.
Overall, recently Sri Lanka in fact has been making progress in terms of technology. A number of tech initiatives were taken, especially in the last year, to provide solutions for problems created by the pandemic. The launch of the Stay Safe app towards the end of last year, regardless of its success, was a start if nothing else. This year, more developments will come through thanks to the establishment of the Ministry of Technology. The presence of a Ministry dedicated to developing the use and adoption of technology reassures that the integration of technology in other fields and economic sectors of the country is not a far off goal anymore. Coming back to agricultural technology, the world as a whole is making progress towards discovering new ways to produce food so that humans wouldn’t have to starve and the earth wouldn’t have to suffer.
The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, or the CGIAR, has revealed that in order to slow down future food crises and food insecurities the world needs to double the current investments in agriculture. They also believe that farmers should have access to better tools that are also scientifically advanced. Given that the world is now recovering from a devastating pandemic, it’s the best time to readjust our priorities and invest more in sectors that will help us sustain ourselves in the future that we are, as a planet, destined towards.