Creating Malaysia's smart, connected farms — Steven Tompkins

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JULY 28 — Even before the current global situation, the ever expanding human population had placed greater and greater burdens on the food supply chain.

Over the past 40 years, Malaysia alone has seen its population more than double, and the proportion of its population living in urban environments surpass 75 per cent.

In the focus on other priorities — from economic growth to living standards — it is easy to forget the essential role that the food supply chain plays and how its capabilities fundamentally underpin the ability of a nation to operate.

If you pause for a moment to consider what goes on behind the scenes for food to arrive on supermarket shelves, you will see reality that is as impressive as any other human achievement.

The food supply chain is not only immensely complex but it actually represents one of humanity’s most significant technological achievements.

From fresh fruit to pre-packaged meals, each grocery item has filtered through an intricate supply chain, starting with the grower constantly striving to boost sustainability, quality, efficiency and productivity, while protecting the environment, reducing waste and costs.

It then moves on to a complex network of suppliers, constantly looking to hone their processes and improve their control.

However, optimising the food supply chain for maximum productivity and efficiency is always a moving target.

Farmers, like their counterparts in other parts of the supply chain, face a complex web of variables to manage — everything from water and fertiliser rates to managing field operations — that needs to be managed dynamically in response to crop needs and a changing natural environment.

Realising Agriculture 4.0

In 2018, the World Government Summit launched a report titled “Agriculture 4.0: The Future of Farming Technology,” which sought to highlight the growing challenges we face in food production and supply.

In the introduction to the report, the scale of the task was laid out clearly: “ by 2050 we will need to need to produce 70 per cent more food ”

And technology has a huge role to play in meeting the challenge, for example by helping growers to automatically apply the precise amount of inputs such as water, fertiliser and pesticides to crop needs, improving yields and conserving scarce natural resources.

With Agriculture 4.0, the vision is for farms to modernise – to become smart enterprises and fully connected.

This means farmers and agriculture businesses relying on digital and connected technologies to obtain a richer picture of data-driven insights that enable them to have greater control over operations.

Having the ability to act on these insights throughout the supply chain, whether it be a slight change in temperature during crop storage or a change in moisture levels in the soil can help to maximise crop yields, reduce input costs and reliance on manual labour.

Yet, agriculture has traditionally been slower to adapt to new digital dependencies.

There are many reasons for this, but common challenges farmers and businesses face are the lack of reliable internet connectivity in rural areas and having the right skillsets to deploy technology and interpret the resulting data correctly.

According to the World Bank, not only should investment in research be accelerated in Malaysia, improvement of skills at all levels corresponding to new technology needs would be required to see an improvement in productivity and efficiency.

The good thing is that Malaysia is already pushing innovation and agritech development to help transform and grow the sector, complemented with the adoption of data and analytics driven by the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation.

However, much of this technology is dependent on reliable internet connectivity in the field to send data in real-time to the farmer, but there are still vast swathes of agricultural land that suffer from unreliable or non-existent connectivity, either lacking cellular or broadband connectivity.

Leveraging satellite communications

To truly take advantage of agritech, overcoming connectivity challenges will be crucial.

However, despite the wealth of technology available, deployment can still be challenging, particularly where there is a lack of reliable 3G and 4G mobile coverage.

This is where reliable satellite communications can help. Ubiquitous connectivity from satellites opens up huge possibilities for growers in remote areas to take advantage of Agriculture 4.0.

In some cases, this is as simple as connecting frontline worker teams in large plantations to operations centres to prioritise workload and create efficiencies.

Taking it one step further, satellite communications can be a bridge to enable farmers to connect data producing devices in the field, such as weather stations, sensors, data from farm machinery, to business applications.

Such connectivity is already enhancing the capabilities of sectors such as mining and rail, particularly in remote locations, these benefits also apply to agriculture.

The “Internet of Things” or IoT, includes systems that collect data from the field and harnesses it to support intelligent decision-making.

For instance, obtaining real-time data on irrigation systems to help better manage quality of crop production, or data on nutrient status in the field from sensors, would allow decisions to be made objectively and accurately.

However, to make this easily accessible to growers, highly reliable satellite connectivity network is needed.

Choosing the right communications setup is important, and this largely depends on the size of area to be covered, the amount of data to be transferred and number of devices to be connected.

Sowing the seeds of Malaysia’s growth

With Malaysia looking to transition to high-income status, successful agricultural transformation is crucial in order to expand the sector’s GDP.

This will also help meet the growing demand for food amidst an expanding population and urbanisation.

Once the industry sets on its path towards the Agri-Tech Revolution, the opportunities brought about by the combination of reliable, ubiquitous connectivity and a clear data strategy will enable agriculture players and growers to do more than management of resources and raise yield productivity and quality.

The sector is on the threshold of a revolution that could enable it to be a more critical source of economic benefits, such as jobs and revenue, as well as a source of domestic produce and exports that will contribute strongly to Malaysia’s growth.

* Steven Tompkins is Director, Agriculture — Inmarsat Enterprise

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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