Digital platforms have the potential of supporting the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by improving their access to free, targeted, timely, and accurate information. In April 2018, Grow Asia hosted its inaugural hackathon, which challenged teams of innovators to build solutions which improved farmer training, logistics or finance for small palm oil farms. The winning idea is a chatbot solution designed by Team A called GrowBot, which collects data on farmers to help give them free, targeted agronomic advice. The solution leverages familiar messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger.
Grow Asia and partners wanted to take this further and test GrowBot through a pilot. In the long run, the hope is for industry partners to adopt the platform so that farmers could be reached at scale. As a starting point, Grow Asia conducted a farmer consultation mission with Team A and representatives from Bayer in Cirebon, West Java, Indonesia in July 2018. The objective was to collect information to inform the design of the GrowBot pilot.
Digital Literacy and Access to Information
The interviews revealed that farmers in this area have very little access to data and the internet. The farmer consultations found that only 10% of farmers owned a smartphone. From those who own a smartphone, the level of digital literacy was variable – most farmers only use Facebook and WhatsApp and use very minimal features within those apps. There were some farmers who regularly use Google to do basic research on new products for their farm, as well as watching videos on YouTube for leisure and to learn about farming practices.
Besides cost, the primary barrier of internet usage/smartphone adoption seems to be a lack of understanding of the value of the internet. Most of the focus groups did not perceive smartphones as necessary to their work, and preferred human-interactions when seeking information. In the farming practice, these key groups are most influential in the farming practice: government extension workers, other farmers, shop keepers, and sales representatives.
To identify the current information gaps that the farmers face, we asked the farmers to rank the top three issues that they were most concerned about regarding their practice. They ranked chemical selection, planting schedule, and market transparency as top issues of concern. However, from asking those questions, we learned that there are additional challenges that we did not account for earlier. For example, farmers have the tendency to ignore correct application methods for products that they purchase, which decreases the efficiency and effectiveness of those products. Farmers do this to save time – so they combine two products together and applies the combined products in one go. Another challenge was the presence of a pre-defined, inherited planting schedule, which ignores real-time weather information.
From this initial scoping mission, it was evident that the primary focus of the pilot should be in understanding the needs of the farmers and understanding the local norms and practices. If not accounted for, these cultural subtleties could become the barrier to improved farming practices even in the presence of timely and accurate information delivered by GrowBot.
Learnings from the field
The low smartphone adoption of this sample of farmers does not make them an ideal testing bed for the pilot. However, as seen in other consultations carried out by Grow Asia in Cambodia and Myanmar in the last year, there are farmer communities that have much higher smartphone adoption that could be a more suitable test-bed. Therefore, despite the unsuitability of the rice farmers in the district of Cirebon, Grow Asia has developed the following learnings that could be used to inform the design of GrowBot:
GrowBot should do a survey on smartphone adoption among the target farmer population prior to the pilot, to ensure that the pilot has a higher chance of success.
In designing the pilot, GrowBot should work with the farmers’ current preferred sources of information, such as government extension workers, shop keepers, or sales representatives. These stakeholders are influential to the farmers, and could offer insight on the farmers’ needs, preferences and information gaps.
GrowBot should account for the top issues perceived as important to the farmers and reflect on how these issues could inform the design of the chatbot.
As an alternative engagement strategy, GrowBot could target the younger family members as they offer a potential avenue to reach farmers. These younger family members could be the influencer or information bearer of GrowBot to the farmer.
Gender implications – we found that women farmers were not well represented in the consultations even though they make up a significant proportion of the farming population. GrowBot could target women farmers serve as an information hub for women farmers.
We are, as always, interested in hearing from businesses and development organizations who are open to sharing their own experience with us. If your organization has successfully implemented digital solutions in farming in Southeast Asia, or would like support doing so, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.