Digital agriculture transforms farmers’ lives in Papua New Guinea

As appears in ITU News site

John Tai is a citrus farmer, who also raises and sells pigs for a living. Gertrude Andreas runs a technical training institution and has her own farm and piggery. They live in Jiwaka, Papua New Guinea’s youngest province. Agriculture is one of the primary key sector in the economy of Papua New Guinea.

John and Gertrude are taking part in a pilot project on e-agriculture, which is changing the way farmers communicate, brand and market their products and overcome their day-to-day challenges. This pilot project follows the Government’s commitment to adopt a strategic approach to transform the agricultural sector through the integration of digital technologies.

The pilot project is based on the proposed national e-agriculture strategy and is run by Papua New Guinea Department of Agriculture & Livestock, the Department of Information, Technology, Innovation and Energy, the National Information & Communications Technology Authority (NICTA), and Jiwaka Provincial administration. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are proving support to the pilot project, which draws inspiration from the FAO-ITU e-Agriculture Strategy Guide developed in 2016.

Papua New Guinea aims to identify accessible and affordable technological solutions to boost productivity in the agricultural sector, and generate new opportunities for employment and income for rural communities. Jiwaka province is the site of the pilot project.

“The opportunities presented by the emerging technologies are crucial for a developing country like Papua New Guinea where majority of the population (80-90%) are dependent on subsistence agriculture,” says Ken Shimizu, Head of FAO PNG Country Office. “Through affordable and accessible e-solutions, farmers are saving time and money by accessing vital information, communicating and networking with other farmers. Papua New Guinea is better positioned to harness ICTs for agricultural transformation into the future.”

Over the years, John Tai has relied on traditional farming methods but has been yearning for new ways to boost the productivity of his business. He was among 20 farmers selected to participate in the “Agritech using ICTs” training program in 2018. During the training, farmers were given basic digital skills on how to use a smart phone, a laptop and how to access the internet. They were also trained on how to set up and use social media applications as a tool for information gathering and marketing; sending and receiving e-mails; using mobile applications to collect and store information and data about their farms. There was also a session on QR code generation and reading, brand building using traceability, packaging and collective branding.

John’s newly acquired digital skills came in handy as he could record images of the animals and send emails.

In recognition of the enthusiasm shown by farmers to adopt mobile technology, the provincial government provided 25 smart phones to the participants while the National Information & Communications Technology Authority (NICTA), and the FAO gave mobile top up cards. In addition, that national regulator plans to connect three pilot sites in Jiwaka Province with high-speed broadband internet connectivity under its Universal Access Services (UAS) project. This will allow farmers living within the vicinity of the pilot sites to have access to internet to gather agricultural information.

“Integrating ICTs into the agricultural sector in Papua New Guinea is a bold step towards addressing the challenges facing the agricultural sector and will play an important role in improving livelihoods,” says Charles Punaha, Chief Executive Officer, NICTA. “As a regulator we are fully supportive of this new approach with a view to contributing to the long-term economic and social development of Papua New Guinea”.

The e-agriculture pilot program is also exploring the possibility of introducing other innovative technologies, which farmers can use in addition to the basic digital skills they have acquired. The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts is supporting the use of Blockchain technology to help farmers collect and share data on pigs’ traceability. Switch Maven has developed a mobile application to help farmers record the history of animals including weight, growth patter, breed, feed, vaccinations etc. The availability of data will help buyers determine the quality of animals and assist farmers adopt good farming practices and to establish a brand for their products.

“The integration of the blockchain technology in traceability offers exciting opportunities in the digital landscape with greater transparency, enhanced security and increased confidence and integrity,” says Ken Shimizu.

The program expects to promote wider adoption of good practices in the province and enhance their market access and sales potential.

Fifteen pig farms in Papua New Guinea are currently using the mobile application to collect data on their animals. The blockchain technology is also being planned to be used in other value chains.

Gertrude Andreas and the youth in her area have gone one step further trailing the use of QR codes to brand their melons for sale to the supermarkets in Mt. Hagen, the provincial town of Western Highland Province (WHP). Using the QR code melon buyers can identify the name of the producer as well as track the production process. Gertrude hopes that this technology will help farmers generate better income and improve the quality of products from Jiwaka.

Switch Maven conducted a training of experts on blockchain technology in collaboration with ITU, FAO and NICTA. The main objective of the training was to equip local software developers with the necessary skills and knowledge in understanding and implementing the Blockchain technology.

Although the use of the Blockchain technology faces several challenges including lack of awareness on technology amongst farmers, Raman Nambiar from Switch Maven says the application has great potential in building trust in the pig farming value chain and hopes it can be scaled up to a fully-fledged e-market place.

The use of digital solutions to boost agricultural production in Jiwaka is generating a lot of enthusiasm amongst farmers and other stakeholders. The provincial government also recognizes the great potential of technology for other products, especially coffee, which is the main agricultural product from the province.

“This is the 21st century and the world is moving into technology. The e-Agriculture pilot project in Jiwaka provides an excellent opportunity for farmers to access vital agriculture and livestock information using ICTs,” says Steven Wusik, Acting Administrator for Jiwaka Provincial Government. “Our farmers can now connect with other farmers to get information, assistance and access to markets, which could be a very tedious process without technology. Under my leadership, I will accord full support to this pilot project to make it successful.”

The beautiful rural province of Jiwaka has now the opportunity to use digital technology to establish a brand for its products, improve livelihoods and become a model for adopting digital technologies for agriculture to transform lives.

This pilot project is in support of the ITU Asia Pacific Regional Initiative on harnessing information and communication technologies to support the digital economy and an inclusive digital society.

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