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Agriculture 2.0: how the Internet of Things can revolutionize the farming sector

Hyea Won Lee's picture
Nguyen Van Khuyen (right) and To Hoai Thuong (left). Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Last year, we showcased how Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are adapting to climate change. You met two shrimp farmers: Nguyen Van Khuyen, who lost his shrimp production due to an exceptionally dry season that made his pond too salty for raising shrimp, and To Hoai Thuong, who managed to maintain normal production levels by diluting his shrimp pond with fresh water. Now, let’s suppose Nguyen diluted his shrimp pond this year, another year with an extremely dry season. That would be a good start, but there would be other issues to contend with related to practical application. For example, when should he release fresh water and how much? How often should he check the water salinity? And what if he’s out of town?
Nguyen’s story illustrates some of the problems global agriculture faces, and how they unfold for farmers on the ground. Rapid population growth, dietary shifts, resource constraints, and climate change are confronting farmers who need to produce more with less. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to rise by 70% to meet the projected demand by 2050. Efficient management and optimized use of farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer will be essential. However, managing these inputs efficiently is difficult without consistent and precise monitoring. For smallholder farmers, who account for 4/5 of global agricultural production from developing regions, getting the right information would help increase production gains. Unfortunately, many of them still rely on guess work, rather than data, for their farming decisions.
This is where agriculture can get a little help from the Internet of Things (IoT)—or internet-enabled communications between everyday objects. Through the IoT, sensors can be deployed wherever you want–on the ground, in water, or in vehicles–to collect data on target inputs such as soil moisture and crop health. The collected data are stored on a server or cloud system wirelessly, and can be easily accessed by farmers via the Internet with tablets and mobile phones. Depending on the context, farmers can choose to manually control connected devices or fully automate processes for any required actions. For example, to water crops, a farmer can deploy soil moisture sensors to automatically kickstart irrigation when the water-stress level reaches a given threshold.

Now, let’s go back to Nguyen’s case to demonstrate how existing IoT solutions could help him answer his questions. First, sensors–for water salinity, temperature, and shrimp appetites–could be installed to help him track the conditions of the pond and shrimp. These sensors would be connected to the pond management system—including the water controller, feeders, and aerators—so as to inform Nguyen of when to release the freshwater to maintain optimal salinity and temperature levels. As long as farmers like Nguyen have an internet connection and a smartphone, they can remotely control the freshwater pond with mobile applications.
MimosaTEK's on-field IoT solution. Photo: MimosaTEK
The benefits that farmers get from IoT application in agriculture are twofold. First, these systems help farmers decrease production costs and waste by optimizing the use of inputs. In addition, IoT can increase yields by improving their decision-making with more and accurate data.
However, challenges to IoT in agriculture persist in less developed regions. First, remote areas tend to lack communication network infrastructure. Also, farmers need to be presented with the right incentives to buy into IoT systems, whose upfront installation costs are still quite expensive.
The good news is that there are organizations and initiatives that have already begun to tackle these challenges. For example, Mimosa Technology is helping smallholder farmers in Vietnam adopt IoT-enabled precision agriculture by leasing hardware devices to farmers’ cooperatives, which has helped  lessen the cost burden on smallholder farmers. Another example is Eruvaka, an Indian startup that provides IoT-based aquaculture pond management solutions to help farmers like Nguyen reduce risk and increase productivity.
The possibilities are endless, but information is essential when it comes to deploying IoT for agriculture. This is why the World Bank is unveiling a new webinar series on the Internet of Things for Agriculture (IoT4Ag). We recognize the potential of IoT in facilitating sustainable agriculture and want to introduce innovative players who are spearheading transformation in this sphere. We also acknowledge the challenges of applying and scaling up IoT in agriculture in the development context, and aim to spur the discussion on how to overcome these challenges. Finally, this discussion will be helpful for us to understand the future of agriculture and respond to the new set of risks that could come with the deployment of IoT in the sector, such as increasing privacy and cybersecurity threats.
If you’re interested in this topic and want to learn more, please join us for our next webinaron Tuesday, August 22. Jehiel Oliver from Hello Tractor will discuss how his company’s GPS-embedded tractors– also known as Uber for tractors – are improving the lives of the rural poor. Want to be part of the conversation? Don’t hesitate to join us for the IoT4Ag Webinar Series and learn more about the topic!