Digitising the agriculture supply chain | Sunday Observer

Digitising the agriculture supply chain

7 March, 2021

At present, food security has become one of the highest priorities for countries across the globe. Even before the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, food security, improving agricultural inputs and the main source of supply of food has been in discussion in almost every country including in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka as a developing nation is looking for various alternatives in agriculture supply chain management and its digitisation for efficient and sustainable functioning of the development of the sector. An optimistic observation is that with the common availability of mobile telephones, the Sri Lankan farmer community is becoming somewhat knowledgeable about information technology.

In Sri Lanka, although farmers individually want to maximise their revenues, there are several limiting factors such as weak market linkages, inadequate access to quality farm inputs, poor services by the authorities, and lack of information about government resources. Facilitate communication between the agriculture fraternity and the relevant authorities that control resources is an important task. Raising awareness about the internet among the rural farming community can be an effective first step.

As an initial step, the government is getting ready to implement digitising agriculture crop storage and distribution at a modern climate-control warehouse facility adjacent to the Economic Centre in Dambulla. The project will be largely funded by India as per available information.

In a rare but highly optimistic and welcoming political scenario, Minister of Trade, Bandula Gunawardane, and Opposition Member of Parliament Dr. Harsha De Silva sat together in a forum to implement this essentially important effort. The government aims to establish a countrywide network of similar nature.

Sri Lanka, with approximately 27% of the population engaged in different forms of agriculture with approximately 7.4% contribution to the GDP, was heavily dependent on the import of food-related products lately. Particularly fruits and vegetables along with many other items including at times even rice.

Despite the large quantities produced, due to inadequate cold and normal storage facilities and improper supply chain infrastructure, an enormous amount goes to waste. A well-coordinated digitally controlled system is the remedy to reduce this colossal waste.

Several previous attempts by governments to control the waste by introducing various methods were futile. An efficient and effective digitised agricultural supply chain management and a marketing system will be the key driver of the sustainable development of the agriculture economy. As the backbone of future food security, agriculture needs an immediate boost in technology, particularly in digital knowledge.

Sri Lanka perhaps is amongst the world’s worst food wasters and will confront a potential challenge in the future concerning food security to feed the growing population.

Most of the damage occurs either in transit or in storage. Fluctuating prices due to uncertain weather patterns also make severe damage to the crop from time to time.

Supply chains are principally concerned with the flow of physical products and information between the stakeholders and distribute products among the end-consumers.

Due to the complex nature of the process, an information-driven digital supply chain can reduce costs, add value, exchange resources, and save a huge amount of time. Digitising coordinated efforts finally will help food security and also create happy consumers.

Supply chain co-ordination contains structured affiliation among producers, processors, traders, and consumers where detailed information is exchanged on quantities to produce, pricing, delivery time, transport, and so forth. The relationships also often involve financial assistance and technical support.

To provide better output, introducing Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to the Sri Lankan farming community has become an absolute necessity. Especially for fresh perishable food products such as fruits and vegetables that need faster disposal requires speedier and more coordinated effort through ICT.

ICT is a powerful apparatus to integrate the whole process of the agriculture supply chain. Starting from land preparation until the product is handed over to the consumer can be done more efficiently through digitisation. The ICT sphere also can be used effectively to enhance quality aspects, agronomic aspects, and nutritional value measurements, etc.

In the Sri Lankan context, reaching the multitudes of small-scale farmers is one of the key aspects of future food security. In the spheres of marketing and value addition, ICT can contribute tremendously to increase efficiency.

Currently, the digital literacy in this segment is minimal although most of them are somewhat familiar with mobile phone use.

Another sphere in digitisation is the efficient monitoring of land use patterns, records, tenancy norms, and even distribution of state lands. The government is currently evaluating the possibility of increasing agriculture production through uncultivated state lands and abandoned private lands. Seemingly, in the absence of properly managed computerised data on such records, the government is unable to implement such programs successfully. In order to be effective and efficient in the future, the authorities need digitised information.

Information technology must be used to maintain an updated database of specific agricultural information covering the entire country. This updated information can be related to climatic conditions, the arrival of monsoons, products in demand, demand-supply status, and even seed selections.

Currently, the vast majority of agriculture-related information is in disarray with various agencies giving different data, often contradictory. It is a conclusive necessity that all relevant information and data be brought under a single institution.

At present, collecting data and statistics seems a tedious and tiring process. Most of the websites of the Ministries and other government institutions are not updated regularly and the available information is obsolete. For example, this writer’s effort to get through to the Ministry of Trade website to obtain the latest information was a complete failure.

The chain involves a number of players with different social and educational levels. Hence the integration of the effort of services depends on the extent of trust amongst the stakeholders. Striking equal balance between affluent participants and the rest of the members has to be managed meticulously to avoid possible conflicts. In order to provide benefits to all partners, the techniques and the process must be strengthened through a digitised monitoring system.

The effectiveness of digitising information is beyond any doubt in improving productivity at all levels of the agricultural sector. Comparatively, food loss reduction is less costly than the increase of production.

By modernising the handling systems with ICT will undoubtedly cut down on food wastage and in turn improve food availability to society. Efficient collaboration between stakeholders will reduce risks and losses on one hand and greatly improve the efficiency to ensure food security.

Digitisation of the agriculture supply chain can provide required linkages, improve market reach, improve business processes, and increase product diversity. The standpoint of the authorities on digitisation is vitally important to make this happen.

Now is the best time for authorities to become proactive with the digitization program because the President not only has given maximum possible attention to agriculture development but also understands the opportunities and threats as a career ICT professional.

The government, related professional institutions, and the private sector players should take interest in the national need immediately and implement systems and make information available through a digital network to the farmers and other stakeholders. The focus on building a responsive and flexible digitised network will reduce end-to-end supply time. The need of the day is to exploit the potential of agriculture in the Sri Lankan economy.