Digital Agtech is aimed at encouraging farmers and others to benefit from using the latest digital technologies such as IoT, BDA and AI in the agriculture sector
The days of farmers toiling for long hours in their fields in the sweltering heat are numbered.
The latter part of the past decade has seen technology creeping into agriculture, which has been helping farmers to operate their farms more efficiently and increase their yields and profitability.
Currently, emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics (BDA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being used in some agricultural farms in Malaysia.
In fact, it is the use of technology in the agriculture sector that ignited former journalist Fuad Hadinata Yaacob’s interest in farming. To acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, he is now “attached” to a “digital laboratory farm” in Kampung Sijangkang in Telok Panglima Garang in Selangor where red chillies are cultivated using the fertigation technique and smart farming practices. He has been there since early November and after completing his training, he plans to start a similar chilli farm in his village in Alor Gajah, Melaka, sometime next year.
Good internet access
Fuad Hadinata, 42, told Bernama many people from the airline, media, services and catering industries who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis have taken a proactive step by trying their hand in the smart farming sector. “Some of them have returned to their kampung to till their land that was left idle previously and, at the same time, help to take care of their parents. “To me, this group of people (who are shifting to agriculture) has many advantages as they are already technologically-savvy and are still energetic and have (their own) land. All they have to do is to start their operations,” he said. However, before embarking on any smart farming venture, especially in rural and interior areas, one must make sure there is good access to the Internet. “Even in some developed rural or suburban areas, Internet access is less than satisfactory in terms of speed, area of coverage and stability. Disruptions (in Internet access) can make it difficult for people in those areas to pursue smart farming,” he said.
He said the use of IoT in agriculture can make it easier to run a farm, as well as enable the farmer to operate it more efficiently and increase his profits. Fuad Hadinata also said that the agriculture sector should work more closely with the telecommunications sector and application developers as their collaboration would not only help to enhance farmers’ income but also reduce agricultural imports and help control the prices of raw materials in the market.
According to Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) Data Ecosystem Development director Dr Karl Ng, the injection of digital technological elements, or smart farming techniques, into agriculture is increasingly proving to be successful.
He said MDEC developed its Digital Agtech initiative about three years ago after conducting visits to various agricultural sites nationwide to get an insight into the problems faced by farmers. “After our discussions with them, MDEC realised that the issues faced by the farmers in our country, mostly concerning costs, monitoring, negligence and workforce, can be addressed through the use of digital technology,” he told Bernama.
MDEC’s Digital Agtech was adapted in selected farms beginning October 2017.
Elaborating on the initiative, Ng said Digital Agtech is aimed at encouraging farmers and others to benefit from using the latest digital technologies such as IoT, BDA and AI in the agriculture sector.
The use of digital technology, which allows farmers to monitor their farms on their smartphones, has the capacity to enhance yields and the overall quality of their produce. It can also reduce farm operational costs which, in turn, can boost earnings.
Ng said the first phase of the Digital Agtech initiative’s pilot project was implemented on a site in Bukit Changgang in Banting, Selangor, in 2017 with the cooperation of the Kuala Langat Area Farmers Organisation (PPK).
The project involved the cultivation of chillies using a smart sensor fertigation system and its success spurred MDEC to expand the pilot project to a chilli farm in Kampung Sijangkang where a “smart farming laboratory” was established.
Ng said the Kampung Sijangkang farm set a benchmark for the successful application of IoT technology in the cultivation of chillies. “This farm uses the smart sensor fertigation system to monitor and control the use of water and fertiliser. The use of real-time data analysis also minimised agricultural costs,” he said.
Now in its third year of operation since the introduction of the smart farming system, the Kampung Sijangkang farm has been seeing its positive impact, namely a 22 percent increase in yields and quality of produce, 33 percent rise in earnings and 30 percent reduction in the overall farm operational costs, pointed out Ng. With the pilot project’s successful outcome, MDEC is now more convinced than ever that its Digital Agtech initiative will encourage more farmers to shift to digital farming. “It’s a good opportunity for them to improve their standard of living, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.
Train more farmers
To expand smart farming, MDEC has set up digital labs in three locations – Teluk Mengkuang and Desa Sijangkang in Banting, Selangor, and Sungai Lumut in Kuching, Sarawak.
Established in the concept of a satellite farm, the digital lab serves as a training centre where existing and novice farmers are taught to use digital technology to boost yields, Ng explained. “We don’t want digital technology to only be applied in certain farms and benefit certain people only. With the establishment of our digital labs, we want to train more farmers to use digital technology on their farms. We want more Malaysians, particularly the younger generation, to get involved in smart farming ventures,” he said.
From January to December 2019, the three digital labs, set up in collaboration with Kuala Langat PPK and local technology partners, succeeded in training almost 600 farmers from all over the country. To attain its objective of creating 3,000 digitally-trained farmers, MDEC is expanding its digital lab initiative to other agricultural zones in other states and hopes to reach its target by 2025.
Budget 2021 steers Digital Agriculture
Meanwhile, Budget 2021 has proposed seven main initiatives for the agriculture sector which contributed 7.1 percent to the gross domestic product in 2019.
Among them is the e-Satellite Farm programme for which RM10 million will be allocated in the form of matching grants of up to RM30,000 for each PPK for the purpose of buying IoT-based agriculture gadgets such as drones and AI applications. The programme is expected to benefit more than 300 PPK and nearly one million farmers nationwide.
Ng said MDEC hoped that the allocation would expand the implementation of digital agricultural pilot projects in aquaculture, cultivation of green vegetables, poultry farming and pineapple and oil palm plantations. “The wider use of technology in agriculture will benefit the people as a whole. This is in line with MDEC’s aspiration to transform the traditional agriculture sector into a modern sector in the digital economy that can provide more job opportunities.
“It’s already proven that digital agriculture can generate higher incomes and strengthen the nation’s economy through higher yields. This will help to reduce our nation’s food imports,” he added.ç
By Shanika Abdullatib