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Malaysia using tech to empower farmers

A recent report noted that as the world’s population booms, 70% more food will need to be produced. This means greater investment in agriculture.

Agriculture plays a massive role in the Malaysian economy but is seeing major losses as a result of inefficiency and bureaucracy. To maintain its competitiveness the increasingly dynamic market, it is imperative that the country refines the way its farming industry operates.

While the agricultural value chain complex and inefficient the future of agriculture remains relatively bright, with answers to most of the sector’s issues lying in precision agriculture.

Precision agriculture (PA) or smart farming is the optimisation of inputs (such as water, fertilisers, pesticides and tools to enhance yield, quality and productivity).

The farming management concept centres around observing, measuring, and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops using satellite farming or site-specific crop management (SSCM).

To ensure that crops and soil are at optimum health and productivity levels, farmers can use information technology like satellites, drones, artificial intelligence and weather forecasting tools, thus ensuring that the whole process is time- and cost-efficient.

Rather than depending solely on people to look at the leaves and soil of the crops to decide what is needed, the use of satellites and robotic drones overlooking the crops would provide farmers with real-time images of individual plants.

Information from those images can be processed and integrated with sensors and other data to yield guidance for immediate and future decisions, such as precisely what fields to water and when or where to plant a particular crop.

The key challenges faced using current farming practice include:

  • Low crop yield – in large part a result of unpredictable weather conditions and inefficient techniques
  • Variation within farms and region – based on resource endowments, location topography and farmers circumstances
  • Lack of ability to manage calamities – natural events and disasters often lead to water contamination, harvest loss, and destruction of irrigation systems and other agricultural infrastructure
  • Produce wastage – Seeds of poor quality, inadequate farming practices, or insect attacks in the field can provoke losses of products even before their harvest.

Thus, it is imperative that Malaysia starts to empower its farmer with technologies that will help increase profits and reduce risks.

These technologies include not only information technology, but also telematics, GPS assistance, robotics, automated hardware, agriculture drones, and variable rate technology.

Existing farmland needs to be used strategically so as to not waste any land and money. To create these strategies and implement them, farmers are looking towards technology to boost yields while helping to manage costs. They are using the smart Internet of Things (IoT) devices connected to a central NOC (Network Operations Centre). It is important to note that incremental revenue and profits will justify investments in technology.

It is evident that technology can help enhance efficiency at every stage – storage, transportation, retail or wholesale. Moreover, tech will help empower Malaysia’s farmers by ensuring them greater and well-deserved financial security.

In the past, precision agriculture was limited to larger operations which could support the IT infrastructure and other technology resources required to fully implement and benefit from the benefits of precision agriculture.

Today, however, mobile apps, smart sensors, drones and cloud computing makes precision agriculture possible for farming cooperatives and even small family farms.

Currently, the average Malaysian farmer is 50-years-old so incorporating or adopting new farming technology is challenging, especially as rural youths tend to relocate to urban centres with the promise of employment and a modern lifestyle. This can, and will, add pressure to the volume outputs.

Thus, in order to retain the next generation within the farming industry, the country needs to embrace change in the form of the adoption of technology.

Analytics, especially for small and medium farmers, is starting to emerge as a significant enabler to improve the gains larger enterprises have seen especially in developed counties. The increased access and significantly reduced cost associated with cloud computing has seen a surge in tools and software enabling the smaller farmer to leverage big data analytics.

Developments are facilitating a low-cost entry point for all farmers. These technologies are utilising smartphone capabilities and low-cost sensors and are making analytics an option for most farmers globally by reducing costs from US$1000s to US$100s.

The development of mobile apps with a focus on simplicity and user experience will open up analytics for all.

Analytics will be core to driving both improved yields and helping deliver economic benefits for the modern farmer. Productivity will be focused, not on extra manpower (limiting average incomes) but on Data and Technology. Technology should not be perceived as a threat to farmers’ incomes but as the facilitator to grow long term real incomes within the sector.

It is important to acknowledge that most farmers often lack the financial means to adopt such technology at this stage as a result of debt and the relentless value chain politics.

This is where the government can provide an extension of assistance. By expanding favourable financial schemes, the Malaysian government can enable farmers to upgrade and modernise their farms. A learning institution or outsourcing service can also be formed to encourage and help farmers to put smart farming into practice.

IR 4.0 is probably the best platform to drive changes in increasing productivity and support the shift towards an innovation- and knowledge-based economy. These initiatives will allow farms to be more profitable, efficient, safe and environmentally friendly.

The future of precision agriculture in Malaysia and across the world is bright. In this imagined future, next-generation biotechnologies will re-engineer plants and animals. Precision farming will optimise the use of water and pesticides. Global food systems will rely on smart robots, blockchain and the internet of things to manufacture synthetic foods for personalised nutrition.

With a worrying global trend of proliferating commodity prices, water scarcity, population growth and the affluent demanding more consumption and erratic weather conditions amongst the few, a new smart and high-tech era will need to be introduced.

Precision Agriculture, where data and automation can help farmers address the many challenges of the future, will be the way to go.

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