Youth, cooperatives seen key to bringing technology into agriculture

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UNIONBANK’s Ramon J. Duarte (right) and Traxion’s Ann G. Cuisia talk about bringing technology into the agriculture sector during a press conference for TechUp Agri held at the Azuela Cove in Davao City on Aug. 25. — LEAN S. DAVAL, JR.

By Maya M. Padillo, Correspondent

DAVAO CITY — Tapping the youth, especially farmers’ children, and cooperatives are considered critical to infusing digital technology into Mindanao’s agriculture sector for higher productivity and improved field-to-market operations.

Various initiatives along these lines are underway, mainly from the private sector as well as in partnership with the government.

TechUp Pilipinas, a group of technology firms and other organizations aiming to deliver digital solutions for inclusive development, has started engaging Mindanao youth to convince them that farming could be a worthwhile enterprise given the right tools.

The TechUp Pilipinas Agri Summit and Unionbank of the Philippines, Inc.’s (UnionBank) ‘’ Hackathon, held in Davao City on Aug. 25, were the first of planned activities for attracting young people back to the farms by allowing them to come up with technological interventions that will make the agriculture sector more organized and efficient.

“Based on our research and information from going around the country, they ask the children of the farmers if they want to go into farming. Unfortunately, most of them don’t want to. This is the reason why we are pushing, we are bringing back the technology so that they go back to their farms. This is among the details that we will be putting in the road map,” said Clint D. Hassan, information and communications technology director of the Department of Agriculture (DA), who was among the event’s speakers.

TechUp Pilipinas said the low earnings from farming, the hard labor it entails, high farm input costs, and the impact of climate variations have forced the agriculture sector “into crisis mode” and discouraged the next generation of potential farmers.

Mr. Hassan said the DA and UnionBank are working together to conduct trainings that will involve the farmers and their children.

“So that if they (farmers) don’t know how to use cellphones or tablets or laptops, their companions will be the one to perform the activity on how to use the technology,” Mr. Hassan said.

UnionBank Senior Executive Vice-President and Chief Technology and Operations Officer Henry Rhoel R. Aguda said Mindanao is a good place to experiment considering its natural resources and a student population that is embracing new technology for application to “real world problems” such as in agriculture.

The DA official added that the department is also looking at partnering with the Department of Education, Commission on Higher Education, state colleges, and private schools for training and workshops.

Mr. Hassan said one technological application that could improve the sector is developing a database of farmers and their land, adding that there is a current list of up to 14 million farmers, which has some shortcomings when it comes to tracking which sites they till and their output.

“Once we are able to finish the map, that is the time that we will be able to identify the production of the farmers. The most challenging part on our side is how we will be able to monitor their actions,” he said.

UnionBank’s Ramon G. Duarte, senior vice-president of Platform Development Group, said apart from the TechUp Pilipinas initiatives, the bank itself also wants to expand its exposure to the agriculture sector.

“Right now we are not doing very well in this sector as a bank. That is why we need to find new ways to approach them on technology,” Mr. Duarte said in a press conference.

“If we can transform ourselves as a bank to go from being a traditional lending entity to a tech banking company, we think it might transform other areas,” he said.

“Think of, example, the supply chain. If you can hold information from all participants in the ecosystem, get them to put all information online, get them updated information through technology, it can become a powerful proposition. For example, we are working with some logistics companies, some co-ops (cooperatives). At this stage of the game, we need to reach out to the farmers, working with technology companies that provide domain for logistics,” he said.

“To access the farmers, co-ops are the key,” he added.

Traxion, a transaction management company that specializes in blockchain technology, is also in discussions with cooperatives to bring its services to farmers.

“We don’t have to explain blockchain to the farmers and they don’t even need to know. What will happen is they will only see the benefits. They will see that their ID card with QR code can be used for purchases… The farmers, what they will have to deal with is the cooperatives,” said Jojy Azurin, Traxion co-founder and chief operating officer.

Traxion Chief Executive Officer Ann J. Cuisia pointed out that the company want to engage cooperatives because these are among the organizations that farmers trust.

“This is what’s important. In Mindanao, there are several cooperatives that we are engaging and talking to right now, explaining how this works,” she said.

Traxion is offering blockchain through an application that will allow farmers to receive payments directly from users like restaurants and even households, and capture real-time data for better crop management and harvest, among others.

Ms. Cuisia said the firm is preparing to roll out a program for a banana plantation in Bukidnon and hopes to replicate the project with LionHeart Foundation in southern Palawan, where it introduced blockchain-based payments, payroll, loans and savings to thousands of farmers through an ID card format.

Ms. Cuisia also cited the indigenous peoples (IPs) in remote areas who stand to benefit from the digital system.

Mr. Azurin said the One Mindanao campaign aims to link farmers, cooperatives, medium and large businesses in the south into one blockchain-based “ecosystem” that is transparent and secure.

DA’s Mr. Hassan said it is crucial to start expanding technology’s role now in agriculture to ensure food security.