Digital Agriculture: Start Simple, Start Now

Jack Wang

The world talks a lot about digital transformation. Few relate it to agribusinesses where plantations and dairy, poultry, or fish farms immediately come to mind. Even fewer connect it to Southeast Asia (SEA) where buffaloes are still employed in the fields.

But agriculture businesses are not digital dinosaurs. Far from it; business owners, farmers, and other industry players are remarkably open to the promise of digital innovation.

Faced with supply-side challenges, as the world’s population and therefore food demand are progressively on the rise, why wouldn’t they be? Agribusinesses know they need to increase production and enhance yield while managing rising costs. With regulatory pressures mounting, they know they need to be smarter about safety and sustainability.

It’s about clearly defining the role that digital plays – especially for large farms in SEA

The issue arises when digital advocates talk incessantly about the big vision without articulating how any of the components make sense for each individual business, plantation, or farm.

Sure, drones, connected machines, and field sensors are more affordable than ever and are driving greater efficiency, agribusiness owners say. But how can they be utilized in my plantation, especially when it’s much larger than most farms?

Yes, they say, data-driven decisions are more precise than intuition for improving fertilizer planning. But what changes will I have to make to my infrastructure?

For agricultural businesses, going digital needs first to be about clearly articulating the wins that digital will afford the business, then clearly defining the role it plays, and subsequently mapping out the steps to get there. This is far more important than just obtaining newfangled digital capabilities.

It is particularly so for Southeast Asian agribusinesses, many of which deal with massive plots of land, making every new implementation that much more complex.

Taking baby steps now to future-proof tomorrow

With that in mind, it becomes clearer what agribusinesses’ next move towards digitization should be: pragmatic, baby steps.

Rather than talk about the seven new innovations at hand and how they can turn my farm into a digital enterprise, the more pertinent questions should be: How can we take one or two technologies and try it in one farm? How can we take the most relevant innovation and make it work harder for us? What are the benchmarks for success, and when do we start rolling out the successful pilots?

Take the idea of connected farming in palm oil plantations as an illustration. The ability to track individual palm trees to let each thrive at its optimum is valuable. But in large plantations, implementing a sensor per palm tree to attain the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) may not be practical cost-wise.

An alternative could be to deploy drones with multi-spectral imaging cameras. It takes way fewer drones than sensors to monitor the same area. Aerial imagery allowing individual palm identification is then fed into the cloud for analysis against a set of parameters. The outcomes could tell plantation owners if a palm tree – or a group of trees in a certain area – is short on nitrogen so they can apply fertilizers in the right areas. This targeted fertilization approach shaves unnecessary fertilizer costs – a large part of operating expense – and reducing the environmental footprint.

So what started out as an objective to let each individual palm tree thrive also ends up slashing costs and enhancing sustainability.

Baby steps, not-so-baby results.

Don’t underestimate the first-mover advantage

It is important to get an early start.

Industries, such as retail and media, that have already gone through this type of disruption have shown that the early mover will experience a significant advantage.

This is no different in digital agriculture. The good thing is: Agribusinesses can act now and still claim first-player gains. But the clock is ticking.

Wait too long, and enough innovations will come to alternative crops for them to take over the sweet spot. In the longstanding soybean vs. palm battle, this is a real concern.

What new innovations have you been considering? Can you try one out at one farm and make it a roaring success? Drop me a line; I’d be keen to exchange views.

Too many people worldwide are going hungry. This is Why We Must Rethink The Global Food System.

Jack Wang

About Jack Wang

Born on 291 Farm in the Great Northern Wilderness in China, Jack studied Software Engineering by the beautiful West Lake and achieved an MBA from Nanyang Technological University and Chicago Booth. Jack has been with SAP for 10 years and focuses on helping Agribusiness leverage Digital technologies to improve yield, reduce cost and be more sustainable.