INSIGHT

Why the Transition to Smart Farming Is Critical in Sri Lanka

New technologies have made farming more convenient, efficient, and profitable. Photo credit: ADB.
New technologies have made farming more convenient, efficient, and profitable. Photo credit: ADB.

Published: 19 March 2021

Leveraging technological innovations can help overcome growth constraints and increase agriculture’s economic contribution.

Introduction

In Sri Lanka, agriculture has undergone technological transformation in the last decades, making farming more convenient, efficient, and profitable.

However, farmers face a growing number of challenges and constraints that include low productivity, poor product quality, and climate change. They survive because of direct and indirect support from the government, such as free irrigation and extension services, massive fertilizer subsidy, support prices, and ad hoc trade protection measures. The economic costs of these measures reflect the unsustainable and misdirected ways adopted by successive administrations.

Sri Lanka must continue to develop and adapt technological innovations for the agriculture sector to become a more productive contributor to the economy.

Analysis

New technologies, tools, machineries, and methods have made farming more efficient and convenient. A few decades back, paddy farmers used buffaloes to pull a plough or harrow for land preparation and for threshing the harvested grain. Now, two-wheel tractors do the tasks traditionally done by animals or manually. The availability of smart technologies in each step of the farming system, such as crop development, land management, breeding, agrochemical usage, wholesaling and distribution, processing, storing, and marketing opens opportunities for growth of the sector.

Digitalization of agriculture gradually occurs across a broad spectrum, from low-impact solutions using mobile devices and platforms to provide management decision services to medium- and high-impact smart digital farming. In the past, nobody may have assumed that Sri Lankan farmers would adopt  mobile phones in their farming operations. Today, many young and middle-aged farmers use a short messaging service, voicemails, and other apps for marketing and weather alerts. Public institutions involved in the agriculture sector have stepped in to introduce technological innovations. Sri Lanka’s large agribusiness companies have also started using drones, sensors, satellite images, and nanotechnology.

Following the framework proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Sri Lanka E-agriculture Strategy and the E-Agriculture Action Plan 2016-2020 were developed to achieve agricultural goals by harnessing information and communications technology (ICT). The Department of Agriculture and other organizations have initiated several e-agriculture programs that include interactive ICT and mobile platforms and software applications to disseminate information. Aside from e-agriculture services, a seed and planting material management information system, progress monitoring system for the National Food Production Programme, and a QR code system for the good agricultural practices (GAP) certification program are also under development.

The “E-agriculture” strategy has identified some of the potential applications of ICTs to improve existing agriculture system information collection, efficiencies, and services. These include

  • mobile-based integrated agriculture advisory service;
  • food crop forecasting and marketing information service;
  • pesticide registration and pesticide information e-service;
  • plant protection e-service;
  • research information management system;
  • soil test results e-service;
  • e-agriculture library service;
  • natural resources management information services;
  • plant genetic resources information service;
  • plant quarantine e-service; 
  • weather forecasting and advisory service;
  • land use and soil conservation mapping and e-information system;
  • geospatial information service; and
  • farm machinery e-information service.

The private sector in Sri Lanka is pioneering advanced agricultural technological solutions. The ground-breaking “Govi Mithuru” (in Sinhala) or “Ulavar Tholan” (in Tamil) service was launched in 2015 to provide customized and timely advice to farmers regarding land preparation, cultivation, crop protection, harvest, and nutrition security. The service was developed with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine of Sri Lanka and the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International with support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade-funded GSMA AgriTech Programme.

CIC PLC announced their latest innovation —the use of agriculture drones for “smart agriculture practices,” such as scanning fields and distributing agro chemicals and fertilizer with minimum human involvement and wastage.

Hayleys Agriculture Holdings (HAH) with DJI Technologies carried out a series of field trials at pre-approved locations to assess the aerial spraying capabilities of DJI Agras MG-1 Agriculture Drone in challenging terrains and elevations. It intends to fine-tune this technology to local conditions and crop application requirements in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and relevant research institutions.

Cropwiz, one of the country’s largest agriculture projects with an investment of approximately 1 billion rupees (over $13 million), is an international joint venture that employs cutting-edge greenhouse technology, such as automated climate control and fertigation as well as hydroponics. The system enables “climate smart,” year-round production, mitigating the impact of climate change.

While moving away from traditional farming and adapting high-tech solutions can be identified as a positive step in agricultural development in the country, it is apparent that Sri Lanka still needs to do more.

Implication

The food systems of Sri Lanka require transformation. Emerging technological innovations have the potential to overcome the structural weaknesses of current agricultural systems and deliver a more productive, competitive, and sustainable outcome, using a more precise and resource-efficient approach.

The expectations are high that smart farming will not only optimize the production output and focus on preservation of scarce resources, but it will also address issues of climate change, labor scarcity, and post-harvest losses that affect the whole value chain, from planting to harvesting and distribution, while eliminating hunger.

More research and development need to be carried out to improve the use of modern technologies in the agriculture sector. Both government and private sector involvement in technology R&D should be strengthened through collaboration with local universities and research organizations as well as foreign institutions.

Lower resource endowments of smallholder farmers, such as lack of capital and other resources, and poor access to markets and institutions, including extension services, may affect and put them at a disadvantage in reaping the benefits associated with technological innovations in agriculture. Thus, the government must implement a different approach for such farmers in facilitating this transformation. Government support is critical to reduce the costs of technology by using different management and incentive schemes, such as shared platforms, financing schemes, and subsidized services. Farmer participation in technology usage can also be strengthened through contract farming systems.

Additionally, the ability to use digital technologies in agriculture depends not only on access to basic infrastructure connectivity but also on the development of data collection and analysis services, as well as on the regulatory environment. Thus, necessary steps to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment are also important.

Resources

Department of Agriculture. 2016. Sri Lanka E-agriculture Strategy.

Food and Agriculture Organization. 2017. The Future of Food and Agriculture – Trends and Challenges. Rome.

Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. 2019. Smart Digital Farming in Agriculture: Status and Prospects for Sri Lanka. Policy Insights.

J. Sung. 2018. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Precision Agriculture. Automation in Agriculture: Securing Food Supplies for Future Generations. London, United Kingdom: IntechOpen.

M. De Clercq, A. Vats, and A. Biel. 2018. Agriculture 4.0: The future of farming technology. Dubai: World Government Summit.

M. Pesce et al. 2019. Research for AGRI Committee – Impacts of the Digital Economy on the Food-Chain and the CAP.  European Parliament. Brussels: Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies.

Western Cape Government. 2017. Western Cape sector digital disruption impact assessment.

World Economic Forum. 2018. Innovation with a Purpose: The Role of Technology Innovation in Accelerating Food Systems Transformation.

Ask the Experts

  • Manoj Thibbotuwawa
    Research Fellow and Head of the Agriculture Economic Policy, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS)

    Manoj Thibbotuwawa has been with IPS for over 15 years, working extensively on economic policy research in agriculture and food security. He has collaborated with the World Bank, IFPRI, WFP, IFAD and JICA and with various government institutes for his studies. He holds a PhD in Agricultural Economics from the University of Western Australia.

    Follow Manoj Thibbotuwawa on

  • Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

    The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka is an autonomous economic research organization, established by an Act of Parliament, in Colombo. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent, policy-relevant research to provide robust evidence for policymaking and improve the lives of all Sri Lankans.

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