Bangladeshi Farmers: Technology to the Rescue?
This post is written by Moushumi Khan, the Foundation for Charitable Activities in Bangladesh (FCAB).
Bangladesh has been renowned for its prolific growth of the region’s cash crops of jute and rice, due to its rich delta soil, abundant water, and multiple crop seasons. Over time, however, its role as a market-leader has changed with several challenging factors, such as dense population, so Bangladesh is always looking for ways to improve overall agricultural output via a variety of approaches.
Technology is certainly one such tool that can leverage success – and this approach is much more powerful when used in a local context. FCAB’s experience in rural Bangladesh teaches us that three factors impact technology’s effectiveness: access, utility, and sustainability. Applying technology requires a holistic approach to addressing these factors.
Bangladesh has a supportive regulatory, business, and donor environment for technology innovations in the agriculture sector, which makes up nearly 80 percent of the economy. The Government of Bangladesh’s 2018 Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Policy targets agriculture with its eKrishi Vision 2025, mandating ICT-enabled services for farming ("krishi") that fall in line with its plans for "Digital Bangladesh." Its economic importance encourages the private sector to design products and services that integrate technology with agriculture. Development partners continually seek to increase the country’s crop diversity and agricultural productivity, often using smart technology as a key.
One key advantage of smart technology and the overall digital era is the ability to check remotely on the weather and market prices/demand, while also accessing helpful technical farming guidance. Yet, in spite of these and other benefits, technology is still not the panacea many have hoped for this region. Limitations on access that most farmers have – ranging from the actual device to run these technologies to having adequate and consistent power to run or recharge them, or the internet connectivity necessary to operate apps or otherwise connect with others – limits their use. Bangladeshi farmers have for generations thrived using low-tech means, so any advanced tool that is introduced to improve their livelihoods should be readily accessible to be worthwhile.
Apart from accessibility, many of these farmers simply prefer what may seem to be their "old ways," and it is worth considering why some of them may still be viable options for technological advancement. Speaking from experience in this region, FCAB’s own attempts to introduce new initiatives (whether in health, education or any of our interventions) sometimes have run against common local practice, and we have had to pivot, listen and learn why these habits or behaviors have stuck and how they have been successful over time. This is the "give and take" in a country's development, whereby sometimes we are wrong and they are right, and sometimes it just takes time and persistence to teach new habits. Farmers know from experience what crops grow best on their land, and they will only adopt technology practices that actually work for them. They also need to know how to use it, so regular, simple training is essential to any new tool's success – as is the coordination between traditional knowledge and innovation.
Lastly and perhaps most unfortunately, those marginal, hard-to-reach farmers who could greatly benefit from low-cost, quality farming technology often do not have the resources, skills or training to use them. In addition to the hurdles of access and utility, these barriers will impede the sustainability of many desirable technologies. Given the preponderance of ICT in society, there is no alternative to technology in agriculture and its sustaining promise to farmers, but effective, uniform adoption of these tools across Bangladesh still remains a challenge.
Countless farming apps have been created in a vacuum while purporting to meet farmer’s needs. Many remain unused or under-leveraged because they have little real application or utility to ground realities. For example, for a digital marketplace to work, a functional platform has to be built, farmers have to be convinced of its value and trained how to use it and there has to be continuous user-support. Any breakdown along this chain renders the technology useless.
Technology is not a zero-sum game – progress is continuous, tradition can and should be balanced with innovation and sustainability requires investment from all sides. Farmers in Bangladesh, like farmers worldwide, want technology that is accessible, makes sense for their context, and is readily sustainable. Technology has a valuable role to play in honoring and enhancing livelihoods, by facilitating the sharing of best practices or collaborating on new ideas. Our lives depend on the world’s farmers who put food on our tables; they deserve no less than efficient technology that actually serves them.