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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From tablet to tractor, digital drives farming innovation

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In Kampong Thom Province, an ADB-financed initiative shows farmers how to increase their crop yields and raise livestock effectively through tutorials on a tablet. Moeun Nhean

From tablet to tractor, digital drives farming innovation

Cattle are still ploughing the rice fields of Cambodia and farmers still await the monsoon season to water their crops. While traditional Cambodian farming techniques are still widespread, one can see a gradual change towards industrial farming techniques that are being introduced to farmers through digital means. The impacts of this for Cambodians could be significant as, according to the World Bank, in 2012, 51 per cent of all working Cambodians were employed in the agricultural sector, while in the same year, agriculture accounted for 27.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to the 2012 report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

Lay Piseth, head of the Agriculture Department in Pursat province, north of the Tonle Sap Lake, said that “farmers now are more up-to-date through announcements from our department and various NGOs’ educational projects broadcasted through the radio, television and even Facebook.”

Through information and education, he explained, farming habits have changed, now including the use of new and more profitable rice seeds that adapt better to climate changes while producing higher yields.

“[The farmers] are also more attentive to their crops and are changing their planting cycles and fertilising methods, especially once they understand the changes in the market and in the weather,” Piseth added.

Piseth stressed that Internet access is the key to furthering farmers’ knowledge of their trade, and he claims that now most of them are online, being especially well-versed in Facebook on their smartphones.

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Farmers are educated in Kampong Thom Province. Moeun Nhean

“In Pursat province, farmers who understand agriculture [better] amount to about 75 per cent. Even if they live in a secluded and rural area, they still have access to this knowledge,” Piseth said, adding that this has resulted in 60 to 70 per cent of farmers now making use of machines instead of the traditional cattle or their bare hands.

Farmers working the land near the main roads, especially, are likely to up their techniques, according to Piseth.

“High potential districts such as Bakan District along National Road 5 are 90 per cent populated by farmers who are now using agricultural machines, and around 98 per cent are of them are using rice harvesting machines,” he said.

Breaking down the numbers, Piseth cited agricultural machinery that are currently registered in Pursat: 733 tractors, 15,530 hydraulic tillers, 7,307 water pumps, 230 rice harvesters, 624 stripper harvesters, seven large-scale dryers and 1,729 rice grinders.

While the penetration of machinery within farming communities is high, Piseth admitted that there is still a significant lack of irrigation systems, which makes the annual rice productivity per hectare dependent on weather conditions.

In 2015 for example, the productivity per hectare amounted to 3,160 kilograms while 2014 produced a decreased yield of 3,323 kilograms, attributed to last year’s drought.

Piseth said that in Pursat province there are only two modern irrigation systems.

Regardless, general productivity is flourishing with the help of information technology.

East of Pursat, northeast of Tonle Sap Lake, in Kompong Thom province, Chren Sokunthea, an agricultural project officer for a NGO-funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), has been educating farmers on how to maximise their crop production for years.

Stressing the importance of passing on knowledge by means of visual aid, Sokunthea explained that her NGO makes video tutorials that farmers can follow on smartphones, iPads and other tablet devices.

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“Many farmers became very interested in learning about mechanised and safe agriculture methods, because it’s the easiest way for them to understand when they are able to see the actual farming practices in videos, after which they can easily apply them in real life,” she said.

Giving a different example, Sokunthea said that if a group of farmers wanted to explore the particularities of raising poultry and pigs, she would show them videos detailing the proper selection of certain breeds, how to build cages, what and how to feed the animals, and most importantly, how to vaccinate them.

By gradually implementing the practices they see in tutorials through repeated views, farmers’ livelihoods have improved significantly, Sokunthea said. She noted that their children now have the means to attend school regularly, while the most notable achievement is the decreasing number of people who migrate to find paid work elsewhere after the harvest season.

Tiv Vanthy, head of the agriculture department in Kompong Thom, said that as a whole, farmers have immensely changed their approach because they are educated about “the methods of maximising agriculture production, including the usage of machinery in agriculture. And they have gained a better understanding of agriculture markets.”

In traditionally agricultural Cambodia, it seems, the digital revolution and its educational potential are leading the crop revolution.

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