How can developing countries follow the path of Japan in ICT supported sustainable agriculture?


Global Europe

Picture of Masao Shino
Masao Shino

Deputy Director at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

According to estimates from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the annual amount of money required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is US$3.09tr; however, developing countries only fulfilled US$1.04tr of this amount. Moreover, the total official development assistance provided by developed countries in 2014 was about US$14bn. In order to use these limited funds effectively, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is expected to provide further innovative approaches, including improving the efficiency and resiliency of the agricultural sector.

The second SDG states: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”. The applications of ICT to agriculture are diverse: from farmers accessing agricultural information through mobile phones to remote sensing using satellite image pictures, and so on.

Many of us are familiar with the general aspects of agriculture: farmers grow crops based on their accumulated experience and intuition, and share knowledge within their communities. The climate affects the quality, the amount and the price of crops. Farmers also require a variety of agricultural information on elements such as production techniques, weather conditions and market prices. In developing countries, agriculture provides many employment opportunities, even with increased industrialisation. For example, the World Bank data shows agriculture is still responsible for one-third of GDP and three-quarters of total employment in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The features of ICT on the other hand are its ability to digitise and convert data that can be easily stored, visualised and exchanged over geographical distances. Thanks to ICT, information can be presented in a prompt, affordable and precise manner.

But what happens if the benefits of ICT are applied to agriculture? Visualising the experiences and intuitions related to the cultivation of crops and sharing them even from remote areas becomes possible, which in turn leads to improved quality of crops, reduced workload, improvement in efficiency and increased productivity. A database of agricultural information and a facility cultivation system such as a “vegetable cultivation factory” could be created as a concrete measure.

The best example of utilising ICT is the improvement in productivity in the vegetable cultivation factory

ICT also contributes to supplying agricultural information on ways to increase yield, to access the markets and to adapt to weather conditions. All of these have the potential to improve productivity and increase farmers’ income. Mobile phones in particular have been a convenient tool to share agricultural information.

There are, however, some prerequisites for promoting ICT within the agricultural industry. First, the ICT infrastructure must be established. Fortunately, the widespread use of mobile phones and the communication coverage through networks that can access cloud services are making ICT more available for everyone. Second, from a cost point of view, it needs to be affordable to users: whether it is a service that can be used not only on a smartphone but also on feature phones or whether Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) or Operating Expense (OPEX) costs need to be paid is something to consider. Third, it is necessary to take into consideration the unique features of the area, such as customs, adaptability to crops and barriers to utilising ICT. If these prerequisites are met, efforts should be made to encourage users to enjoy the merits of taking full advantage of ICT and promote the transition from traditional methods to newer ones.

Looking at agriculture in Japan, the best example of utilising ICT is the improvement in productivity in the vegetable cultivation factory. This is an environment with semi-controlled lighting, temperature and nutrients necessary for the growth of vegetables based on hydroponic cultivation. ICT is used in the factory to control these necessary parameters. The benefits include stable and high-speed production (depending on the variety, crops can be harvested in half the time compared to log production), as well as advanced use of land. The disadvantages are that the production cost is high (both CAPEX and OPEX), the unit price per crop is about double the log production and, at the present time, there are few applicable varieties (leaf lettuce and other leaf vegetables only).

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted a cloud-based facility cultivation project with Japanese companies in Turkey and Vietnam. JICA also worked on a project investigating control technology in hydroponic cultivation of small and medium enterprises. Moreover, in Bangladesh, JICA conducted cultivation support projects using the web system and mobile phones, with the Telecentre as the operation base for farmers at the bottom of the wealth pyramid.

The application of ICT to agriculture may help achieve the second SDG

Furthermore, JICA has been continuously providing assistance to Rwanda, an African ICT hub country since 2010. In Rwanda, ‘Ecosystem’, which organises people, goods and money by fusing JICA and worldwide support from industry, government and academia to create innovation, is organically occurring. In order to further strengthen this innovation ecosystem, JICA and the Rwandan government will jointly start a new project in the latter half of 2017. The project aims to strengthen the country’s innovation ecosystem through the implementation of pilot projects to solve Rwanda’s social issues with the help of ICT. In this context, a pilot project using ICT for agricultural development is being planned.

The application of ICT to agriculture may help achieve the second SDG. It is clear from the example of Japan’s efforts that the characteristics of ICT, such as data conversion, accumulation, visualisation and exchange over geographical distances offer the possibility of bringing about improvements in agricultural productivity and increasing farmers’ income.

Although the latest technology is not necessarily a solution, since ICT has a rapid transition period, it is essential to create a mechanism (open access) that widely accepts proposals. JICA currently provides a mechanism for accepting proposals from private companies and commercialising them. Similar approaches are also being implemented by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition to this, development assistance agencies are expected to make efforts to fulfil the prerequisites for ICT utilisation by providing public funds, such as Universal Fund and highly concessional loans, which provide communication networks not only for urban areas, but also in rural areas to distribute ICT devices directly to farmers.

This article is from the Development Policy Forum discussion paper ‘International development and the digital age’, in which international tech and development experts consider how to use new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and generate ‘digital dividends’ for the developing world. The discussion paper will also build on the Policy Insight debate ‘Making the digital revolution work better, faster for development’, which was held on 7 November in Brussels.

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