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Jiva’s Head of Growth Seamus Tardif explains in the article the great challenge of technology adoption within the smallholder farming community, our “phygital” (blend of physical and digital) approach, and how Jiva is using the latest technology to help make farming a more prospective, sustainable occupation to ensure food security.

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Solving the global food crisis with technology

Since rice is a staple food for most people in Asia, the upcoming major rice shortage will put the region’s food security at risk. The global rice market is set to log its largest shortfall in two decades in 2023, according to Fitch Solutions’ Country Risk and Industry Research dated April 4. This is due to the knock-on effect of the ongoing war in Ukraine and bad weather in rice-producing countries like China and Pakistan. Consequently, the price of rice will average US$17.30 ($22.90) per cwt through this year and is likely to ease to US$14.50 per cwt only in 2024. (Cwt is a unit of measurement for commodities such as rice.)

Yields of other crops are also expected to be affected due to food distribution, energy and fertiliser shortages. This is why the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 identifies the food supply crunch as one of the biggest risks to the world economy in the next two years.

Using technology to modernise agricultural processes and enable data-driven decisions is essential to securing our food supply. In fact, the International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that data-driven agriculture techniques can increase farm productivity by as much as 67% by 2050 while simultaneously cutting down on agricultural and food losses.

Yet, less than one-tenth of farmers in Asia are using or planning to use at least one agriculture technology (agritech or agtech) solution in the next two years.

Seamus Tardif, head of growth at Jiva — a Singapore-headquartered agritech company operating across Indonesia and India — agrees that smallholder farmers tend to be hesitant to adopt technology as they may not fully understand the value of digitalising farming practices. “The challenge may not always be a lack of smartphones or connectivity, which are of course huge challenges, but it may also be a lack of education that technology can be used to help with their farming needs. For instance, we see many farmers using YouTube and Google for entertainment but not education. They will still ask their neighbours what they think the weather will be like tomorrow. Because of this, we’ve taken a more phygital [physical and digital] approach to getting our services to villages,” he says.

Smallholder farmers, he adds, need social proof before deciding to use technology to transform how they work. “Every change could result in a possible loss of income or breaking of a long-term partnership with local businesses. [So, these farmers will be motivated to transform only when they] see many others around them also changing.

“Also, smallholder farmers are keen to witness the benefits they can expect before they embrace technology. [This is why Jiva] runs demo programmes and invests in village systems by running educational roadshows. In Indonesia, we’ve directly educated over 20,000 farmers through on-the-ground roadshows and established “Jiva Villages” that showcase our 360-degree services. As we proceed, we collect testimonials, such as farmers who doubled their yield and income by following Jiva’s advisory and utilising Jiva’s input and harvest services. We can then share these powerful stories with other farmers to help alleviate their concerns,” he explains.

Empowering smallholder farmers

According to The World Bank, most smallholder farmers live below the poverty line, subsisting on less than US$2 a day. “There are four main reasons for this: Restricted access to high-quality farming inputs, lack of capital at critical moments in the farming cycle, information asymmetry at the time of sale, and improper farming practices,” notes Tardif.

To address this, Jiva provides easy access to high-quality farming inputs, offers credit facilities for farming inputs, enables harvest to be bought at fair and transparent prices, and provides agronomy advisory services for free. “By improving their livelihoods, we believe we can inspire the next generation of farmers and make farming a more profitable and sustainable occupation for generations to come, [which could help strengthen] food security,” he says.

Tardif explains that Jiva operates in a phygital ecosystem. “On the physical side, we work with rural entrepreneurs (which are farmers, collectors, and village-level retailers) and supply chain partners. On the digital side, we have three customer-facing mobile apps — one for each customer group: Farmers, retailers, and collectors. Moreover, we have an extensive automated back-end system for managing transactions, risks, and analytics, which are also made available to our field teams through internally-facing mobile applications.”

Jiva’s farmer app offers agronomy advisory services that leverage machine visioning (which is the ability of a computer to “see” images) and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver real-time crop diagnoses and treatment recommendations by simply taking a photo. It also provides market pricing on key commodities to help farmers make informed decisions on when to sell and the price they can expect to receive based on their crop. “We will soon release a new large language model-based advisory service that draws from our extensive agronomy knowledge base to allow farmers to ask a variety of questions beyond pest and disease management. To purchase farming inputs and get access to credit, farmers can connect with one of Jiva’s collectors or retailers,” he says.

Meanwhile, collectors can use Jiva’s collector app to purchase harvest, sell inputs, and perform credit know-your-customer checks easily. The retailer app gives retailers access to Jiva’s extensive range of high-quality farming inputs such as fertilisers and agricultural equipment.

For its back-end systems, Jiva uses a variety of tech platforms and automation to assist with the management of inventory, transactions, risk, and services to farmers, collectors, and retailers. “Our credit risk assessment tool utilises AI to identify the risk level of each credit request and determine if Jiva should or should not accept a particular cash-advance request. This assessment looks at various events leading up to the request to determine the legitimacy of the request and the likelihood of default, regardless of whether a collector/farmer has been given credit in the past. The aim is to reduce default rates to ensure we can maintain a sustainable credit/cash-advance system.

“We are also evolving our pricing systems to incorporate predictive pricing through machine learning. This will look at the multiple years of the pricing data we have access to across commodities, as well as the current pricing trends and other factors, to help provide a pricing estimate for our operations management team to use to set our daily prices,” states Tardif.

In a recent survey of more than 200 respondents in Indonesia and India, farmers and collectors who leveraged Jiva’s services saw their income increase by 25%. Farmers who used Jiva’s agronomy advisory also increased their yields by up to 49%.

“Additionally, we have heard across multiple sources that Jiva’s commodity prices are now the benchmark of prices across our operating areas. This means that even those farmers who aren’t working directly with Jiva benefit from Jiva being in the ecosystem. We have worked hard to improve efficiencies in the agricultural supply chain and reduce the possibility of bad actors inflating margins, which has resulted in more value being driven back to the farmer,” shares Tardif.