Aligning needs with solutions: Data-driven agricultural innovation for Vietnam’s farmers

Aligning needs with solutions: Data-driven agricultural innovation for Vietnam’s farmers

In many ways, technology, including information and communication technology (ICT), has made our lives easier and helped solve many of society’s challenges. But how do we make sure that ICT lends itself as well to helping those who grow our food?

Photo grabbed from the Agro-Ecology Learning Alliance Facebook page

To help Vietnam’s technology innovators rest assured that their ICT for agriculture (ICT4Ag) solutions do in fact adequately respond to Vietnamese farmers’ current and important challenges, they, together with farmers, convened at a workshop in which both parties gained a deeper appreciation of the challenges in the field on the one hand, and existing technology solutions on the other.

Photo by Timm Walker/GIZ

Photo by Nguyen Ngoc Son/GIZ

Held at Can Tho University on July 13th, 2018, the workshop titled “Aligning needs with solutions: Data-driven innovation for Vietnam’s agriculture sector” attracted more than 120 farmers, technology providers, researchers, and government representatives from all over Vietnam.

“Having technology developers and farmers in one place is extremely beneficial to both parties,” Ole Henriksen, Senior Technical Advisor for the GIZ-Integrated Coastal Management Programme, said. “For researchers, it provided an opportunity to learn what other challenges farmers face that aren’t currently being addressed by available technologies and that knowledge is the impetus for innovation.”

With officials from some of Vietnam’s key agricultural institutions, such as the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development (IPSARD) and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) present, workshop participants also identified ways on how supportive policy could foster a vibrant environment for technology innovation and adoption.

“It was important to involve policymakers and decisionmakers in the very beginning as they will ultimately spell out regulation for the sector. Enhancing individual and institutional capacity and knowledge had been a prime interest in preparing for and conducting this workshop,” Henriksen added.

One of the biggest concerns raised is the affordability of technology solutions, which participants felt, could be addressed if adoption increased and brought down costs due to economies of scale. An enabling policy environment could help increase the adoption of technology solutions by farmers.

At the workshop, participating farmers learned of available, useful technologies, for example, nutrient managers and site-specific agronomic advice delivered through mobile phones, that they never knew existed in Vietnam.

“The technology users – the farmers – are central to technology development,” Dharani Dhar Burra, data scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), said. “In order for us to be able to harness insights from big data, and later develop effective solutions based upon those insights, we first have to consistently know every minutest detail of what goes on in the field. This is where farmers come in.”

 From farmers’ data to climate-smart agronomic information

In a parallel initiative by GRET through the Agro-Ecology Learning Alliance in South East Asia (AliSEA) program, and participated in by CIAT, RT Analytics, and An Giang University-Research Center for Rural Development, rice farmers in Cho Moi upload, through a mobile application, data on their farming activities and management practices in a standardized manner. These data include farm location, and those pertaining to the farm’s production processes such as amount of water used, amount of chemicals used, and others. Data coming from each farm will be entered as a quick response – QR – product code, which can relay to consumers, at point-of-sale, some information regarding the product’s environmental footprint.

Photo grabbed from the Agro-Ecology Learning Alliance Facebook page

“Farmers hate writing the most. The mobile app liberates them from the paper-based farm diary, and that is why they love it,” Le Dang Trung, Chief Scientist at RT Analytics, said. “The data which they enter into the app are then used to help them optimize their farm operations, as well as provide buyers with full traceability.”

Piloted among 20 rice farmers in Cho Moi, the data entry mobile application is seen to expand among more Vietnamese farmers. In fact, maize farmer groups in upland Lai Chau in northern Vietnam will also start using the mobile application this season, with technical support from CIAT, RT Analytics, and Consultative Institute for Socio-Economic Development of Rural and Mountainous Areas (CISDOMA).

According to Trung, beginning next year, RT Analytics will focus on adding artificial intelligence (AI) to the app, to help, for example, diagnose what disease the crop is exposed to after farmers upload a photo into the app. And depending on consumer demand for more information, it can later host more types of data that will contribute to further enhancing the agricultural product’s traceability, and in some cases, the farm’s reputation for food quality and safety.

But that is just the beginning. As farmers become accustomed to uploading all sorts of data – farming schedule, water use, weather observations, pesticide use, crop or yield observations – into the mobile application, researchers receiving all these data will be able to combine these with other data such as satellite weather data and soil data, to develop automated, timely agronomic advice based on each site’s specific conditions.

“It’s give and take,” Burra said. “The more data the farmers give and input into the app, the better quality of information and advice they receive in return. And the better all these data could later inform policy, for example, related to the impact of chemical use at landscape level.”

The “Aligning needs with solutions: Data-driven innovation for Vietnam’s agriculture sector” workshop was jointly organized by Can Tho University, CIAT, and the Integrated Coastal Management Programme (ICMP) implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the Governments of Australia, Germany, and Vietnam.