On the endless loop of learning to serve farmers, with Henri

August 9, 2023

On the endless loop of learning to serve farmers, with Henri

In this edition of ‘Behind Jiva,’ our Sr. Content Specialist Nea Ningtyas shares her conversation with Henri, our star Agronomist who was involved in piloting Jiva’s services in South Sulawesi. He recalled some old dreams he said goodbye to, the challenges of giving advisory services to farmers with decades of experience practicing generational framing tradition, and the reward of learning on the job.

Like most adults, growing up, Henri didn’t think he would do what he ended up doing now.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” he said, quoting one of everyone’s top-of-mind childhood dreams. “I even tried to enter the Air Force through the Student Regiment in college. But they didn’t have a place for an Agro-technology graduate after all.”

As he bid his boyhood ambition goodbye, Henri had to endure another heartbreak when, in 2018, the devastating tsunami that hit Palu made his newly-founded auto spare parts business collapse.

There were a lot of hardships to bear even after that, Henri said, but in the end, he was glad that he found passion in agriculture, something that he had been studying since vocational school.

Amidst a global pandemic, Henri became one of the first agronomists who helped Jiva piloted in South Sulawesi.

Early stages of finding what works

“We tested a lot of services that we can provide for farmers. There were a lot of trials and errors,” he told me when I asked what it was like being involved before Jiva is what it is today. During this hits-or-misses period, Henri found that this job was all about serving farmers.

“Whatever problem that farmers are facing on the field, we have to be ready to offer them services that help them tackle it,” he said. Since the pilot, Henri had been helping Jiva provide agricultural advice, from effective farming techniques to mitigating failed harvests.

His university degree-backed knowledge was for sure instrumental in being able to provide advisory services. But he thought that the most rewarding thing about this job was that it gave an abundance of knowledge that he could only find from being in the field, working directly with farmers.

Although, he continued, it was a challenging job providing advice to farmers with decades of experience and generational farming traditions.

“On the field, you would find that farmers are still practicing the same farming techniques passed down from their ancestors through generations. We cannot say that they are wrong. What we can do is help bridge that knowledge gap; how we connect these traditions with the latest findings in agricultural development,” he said.

The power of trust and words-of-mouth

When we come and “disrupt” an ancient practice, how do we gain the trust of the people who have been practicing it for generations? It was a difficult task, but Henri found that visible evidence was powerful and word-of-mouth was effective at the beginning of our services.

“We conducted some demo plots. At first, we selected ten farmers from villages in South Sulawesi. We shared with them precise cultivating methods that would help them yield more and better at harvest. We had a controller coming every day to ensure these farmers followed our methods and advice. The result was fantastic,” he recalled. “We saw around 200 to 300 percent increase in yield at the end of these demo plot seasons.”

As it turned out, it was easier to convince farmers that our services were helpful when a network of farmers had shared how they could yield 2 or 3 tonnes more harvest per hectare in the demo plot season compared to the previous season when they used their traditional farming methods.

As soon as we acquired their trust, we expanded our advisory service. Farmers could connect with agronomy experts like Henri and consult about crop care by using our mobile app.

“This might come as a surprise, but sometimes farmers didn’t know how to deal with pests or diseases. For example, when their crops got infested with bulai or downy mildew, some farmers would decide that they had failed to harvest that season and would start over. But there are ways to handle this kind of disease, and if they knew how to deal with it, they could avoid a substantial loss,” he said.

Brand new thing

In the earlier stage of our services, farmers could connect with our customer service agents or agronomists and send pictures of their infested crops, asking for advice on how to treat them.

When we had this conversation, I knew that Jiva had been developing a new feature that improves this advisory service. But Henri was being playfully secretive when I asked him to share a little snippet of what it is.

The new feature, dubbed the ‘Crop Doctor,’ has now been launched, so I wouldn’t betray his confidence by showcasing this latest development here.

The Crop Doctor is our newest AI-powered feature that allows farmers to snap a picture of their infested crop, and it will give them a diagnosis and treatment advice. This AI tool has been trained with hundreds of thousands of photographs capturing various pests and diseases that attacked our farmers’ crops — collected and annotated with diagnosis by our field and agronomy team, of which Henri is a member.

Learning as rewards

As we spoke about his role, I thought it was pretty easy to find something rewarding from doing this job: that he could help a farmer preserve the occupation that has been with their family for generations, as you introduce a sustainable way of doing it; or that he could help improve a farmer’s quality of life as they yield better-quality harvest and gain more income.

But for Henri, the most rewarding thing was that he was learning every day from doing his job.

“Honestly, if you’re looking for financial gain, you have to look elsewhere,” he said jokingly. “But if you want to keep learning as you work, this is the place.”

He stressed that it was a rare opportunity to have a job that is in harmony with your interests; that feeds your intellectual curiosity. It was clear that he was passionate about the field itself, that the promise of an “impactful job” wasn’t the only thing that set his soul on fire.

Now, Henri is in the middle of doing his master’s thesis. His agroforestry research examined how farmers in Biringbulu, South Sulawesi, where lands are steep, can mitigate landslide risks in their corn fields by integrating the cultivation of corn with forest plants, creating natural terracing.

Contrary to his playful remarks earlier, he said that working at Jiva has helped his studies, both from the finances and access to firsthand on-field knowledge aspects.

Let’s wish Henri the best of luck for his master’s degree!

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