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[Analytics] How Cambodia can revive agriculture with big data

Cashew farm in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. Photo by The Khmer Times. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Will there be a drought in the coming weeks? Will rice fetch higher prices next month? Farmers will soon be able to leverage Big Data for its predictive insights to facilitate real-time decisions and drive agricultural sector growth in Cambodia. Grace Lim specially for the ASEAN Today.

Once the backbone of Cambodia’s economy, agricultural growth is slowing. It stood at 7.2% between 2003 and 2007 and 4.5% between 2008 and 2012 but has hovered around 1% in recent years. In 2019, the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors contributed just 20.7% to the country’s gross domestic product, compared to 28.8% in 2014. The drop in labor force to 32.2% of Cambodia’s total workforce last year from 45.9% in 2014 further highlighted a slowdown.

Experts attribute the decline in production to low productivity and the detrimental effects of climate change. In 2017 alone, Cambodia suffered damage to 8,646 hectares of maize-planted land from floods and droughts.

As climate change intensifies, experts warn that farmers may have to endure more intense and prolonged droughts and floods, which could jeopardize their harvests and affect their livelihoods. These come as an added burden to other issues such as insufficient access to credit and water as well as pandemic-related border closures.

To address these challenges, the Kingdom has set its sights on modernizing the agricultural sector by 2030 to drive competitiveness and sustainability. The plan, titled the Agricultural Sector Master Plan 2030 (ASMP 2030), aims to forge a competitive, inclusive, resilient and sustainable modern agriculture sector in Cambodia in ten years. Efforts aimed at achieving at least a 3% rise in the total value added in the sector annually will include upgrading obsolete agricultural machinery and increasing the overall level of mechanization.

Farmers in Cambodia have been looking for innovative solutions that can increase yields and productivity. For instance, they have adopted drone technology for spraying pesticides. This eliminates exposure to pesticides, which in turn reduces health risks. They are increasingly automating irrigation, giving farmers remote control over their irrigation systems via their mobile phones. This saves them valuable time and water resources.

Researchers Pasan Maduranga and Ruvan Abeysekera from the IIC University of Technology in Phnom Penh see the potential in harnessing the internet of things (IoT) and machine learning in transforming farm management, especially in areas such as disease detection, irrigation planning, yield prediction, water management, livestock management and weather forecasting.

“IoT based data-driven farm management techniques can help increase agricultural yields by planning input costs, reducing losses, and using resources more efficiently,” they wrote. An analysis of farm data, combined with climate data, can create the best possible circumstances for crop growth and increase agricultural yield.

For instance, machine learning can help identify areas of diseased crops, which can trigger the regular application of pesticides. If farmers know in advance that heavy rainfall is coming, they can quickly construct makeshift huts or shelters, or mobilize workforce and machinery for an early harvest.

Several agritech start-ups are launching and scaling up in Southeast Asia to transform the 71 million small farms in the region. Phnom Penh-based agriculture technology (agritech) start-up Smart Farm Assistance, for instance, is building a platform that collects crop, soil and weather data to facilitate better farming decisions. By breathing new life into all aspects of agriculture, farming across Cambodia could be a lot smarter, more data-driven and less labor-reliant.

Besides fact-based decision-making through smart farming, Cambodia sees enormous potential in leveraging Big Data. As this involves collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data obtained from various stages, a vital first step is to digitalize the agricultural value chain.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) will complete the launch of the CamAgriMarket mobile application in March 2021, which will connect producers, brokers and consumers on a single platform to facilitate transactions. The app will also offer instant access to average selling prices as well as demand. MAFF is currently establishing the country’s Agricultural Big Data Platform (ABDP) and studying the possibility of an agricultural product monitoring and traceability system.

The private sector has also been active on this front. Oxfam is piloting BlocRice, a platform leveraging blockchain technology that digitally tracks orders and contracts between farmers, exporters and buyers. Besides cutting out the middleman, the increased transparency in market prices and contractual terms further empowers farmers and ensures that they receive fairer payments.

As more and more sellers are linked to buyers, and data on yields, practices and ground-level challenges are gathered, there is the potential to build predictive models that forecast price fluctuations, weather conditions and future yields. From crop recommendations to consumer buying habits, Big Data can take the guesswork out of farming and better the livelihoods of farmers.

Is Big Data for all?

Despite the promising potential of Big Data and IoT, the road to large-scale adoption of digital agriculture is waylaid with hurdles.

Grow Asia, an organization established by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the ASEAN Secretariat, noted that just 2.5% of the 71 million smallholders in Southeast Asia use 60 of the world’s leading digital solutions for agriculture. In Cambodia, where the majority of farmers are rural smallholders, just 10 to 20% of the farming community has access to a smartphone. Nonetheless, more than 80% of farmers use mobile phones and high-speed internet is available at affordable rates.

Beyond the wider promotion of agritech, closer collaboration between smallholder farmers, agricultural corporations, research institutes, communities and the government can further augment results. In Thailand, national body National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC) is building smart farms to raise productivity and the quality of life for rural farmers. At the same time, the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), a higher education institute, works to demonstrate the capabilities of IoT.

Farmers with medium and small-sized holdings in Cambodia are urged to become part of a bigger franchise to share data, technology and expertise while farming cooperatives can step up to empower smallholder farmers with new ancillary services with aggregated farm data.

The future of agricultural success will be highly dependent on agro-advisory systems and data-driven insights. However, only by working together to harness it to its full potential can countries such as Cambodia continue to feed the world.

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