Recognising the importance of modernising the agriculture sector to reap greater yields, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) says technology is a major part of its thrust to enhance its extension service delivery to Jamaican farmers.
“The use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enhance and improve productivity has become paramount, especially as it relates to encouraging and facilitating new entrants in the sector,” said Lisa Edwards-Merchant, acting Agricultural Business Information System (ABIS) project manager in the ICT Department at RADA.
Edwards-Merchant said that the state agency has been encouraging its more than 200,000 registered farmers across the country to adopt new technologies. This, she stated, includes the development and use of a mobile-friendly, web-based ABIS, which facilitates the collection of real-time, accurate farmer and production data.
“ABIS acts as a repository for key agricultural data to inform national decision making,” she said, pointing to the benefits of the technology. “Mobile apps are also being developed to augment the current web-based application and to facilitate offline data collection in the field.”
UTILISING DRONE TECHNOLOGY
Edwards-Merchant stated that although there is a vast amount of technology available that could be introduced to farmers, the agency has decided to focus on the “low-hanging fruits” and work its way up.
She said that although in its initial phase, some farmers are already embracing the use of drones.
“Currently, we are using the drones to assist with aerial views in areas which are difficult to access and/or have no access after being affected by a natural disaster,” she said.
RADA’s Drone Unit Manager Hartnell Campbell said that the devices have been deployed in some cases to give a better overview of the land and an indication on how healthy the land is.
“To walk an 80-acre farm is not an easy task, but when we use the drones, they are able to give us a clear enough video evidence of what is happening with the farm,” he explained.
He noted that the farmer can review the data from the drones and then visit specific sections of the farm to investigate and address problems.
Campbell said that under a partnership with a private contractor, some of the drones were also being used to spray banana crops affected by disease. He, however, noted that these drones were more at the high end and were not being used on a wide scale.
He divulged that there are plans to purchase more drones as the agency moves to ramp up the use of modern technology in fieldwork.
“These are drones that can fly up to 50 minutes and will be able to give accurate measurement and data on how much of the land is under production, for example,” he said.
Embracing other forms of tech
Citing other achievable technology targets, Edwards-Merchant pointed to the potential use of both text and voice messages to communicate technical information to farmers about best practices, how to increase productivity, and other information relating to the dos and don’ts in preparation for natural disasters.
She pointed out that social media was not being ignored.
“The use of social media in the creation of WhatsApp groups for farmers to communicate with technical officers and among themselves are some of the technology initiatives being implemented,” Edwards-Merchant said.
She stated that capacity building of farmers was critical and, as such, RADA was encouraging training of personnel in the sector, including extension officers, via online platforms such as Moodle.
And farmers have been grateful for the opportunity to infuse modern technology into their operations.
“We believe that the use of technology has tremendously enhanced the productivity of our farmers and, by extension, the sector. They have been embracing and are appreciative about the different avenues being employed to assist them to increase their yields and improve their markets,” she said.
HUMAN RESOURCE CHALLENGES
However, Edwards-Merchant noted that there are challenges.
“Our greatest challenge still remains the shortage of human resources in the field and the continuous funding for some of these projects for sustainable use – for example, the sending of both text and voice messages continuously. Additionally, we would want to acquire a drone that has analytical capabilities. This will greatly assist in the analysis of the data collected,” she maintained.
The more than 200,000 farmers registered with RADA are in 98 extension areas across the country, with field experts at a ratio of 1,500:1, Edwards-Merchant informed.