Sri Lanka can make farms more productive with emerging tech: IPS researchers

WEAK GAINS: Sri Lanka’s productivity growth has lagged the region, says IPS researchers.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka can make farming more productive using emerging technologies of the so-called fourth industrial revolution (4IR), researchers at Colombo based Institute of Policy Studies have said.

Manoj Thibbotuwawa and Nimesha Dissanayaka write that rapid population growth has put tremendous pressure on the world’s agricultural systems to provide safe andnutritious food

“Unfortunately, productivity growth has been hampered by land and water resources degradation andclimate change,” they say.

“The economic and social costs of such disruptive drivers imply that the food systems need to adapt and transform.

“As it stands, emerging technologies of the Fourth IndustrialRevolution (4IR) have thepotential to overcome the structural weaknesses of the current food systemsand deliver more productive, competitive, and sustainable outcomes.”

4IR Technologies in Agriculture

4IR technologies are used in agriculture in different ways, but mainly in the form of smart farming or precision agriculture. ‘Smart farming’ is a modern farm management concept that uses digital techniques to monitor and optimise the quantity and quality of agricultural products.

Today, farmers have access to an array of modern tools and data, ranging from low impact information and communication technologies(ICT) to more advanced technologies such as theInternet of Things (IoT), robotics and drones,blockchain,artificial intelligence (AI), big data, virtual reality (VR),and augmented reality (AR).

These are used in smart agriculture to accurately measure the variations within a field and adapt strategically.

The Need for 4IR Technologies in Sri Lanka’s Agriculture Sector

Ensuring steady profits in agriculture requires reliable yields. In recent times, the yield levels of Sri Lanka’s food cropshave stagnated at unimpressive levels,even for a developing country.Based on total factor productivity (TFP) growth, Sri Lanka is not only performing poorly in South Asia, but the country’s TFP growth itself is declining.

Decadal % Agricultural TFP Growth Rates among South Asian Countries (1970-2015)

The inefficient use of inputs, including the overuse of subsidised fertiliser and irrigation water, is also a concern. Moreover, Sri Lankan farmers are battered by the negative impacts of climate change, such as rainfall variability, rising ambient temperatures, and extreme climatic events.

These issues exist in all facets of the food system,which includesfood production, processing, distribution, access, consumption, and resource/waste recovery.

With special attention being paid to the quality and safety of food, the inferior quality of most Sri Lankan farmgate products is a serious challenge.

This is mainly due to poor weather conditions, low cost processing technology, poor storage facilities, early harvesting habits, and the small-scale nature of production.

Poor quality means export opportunities are lost, along with foreign exchange earnings. Thus, modern and restructured markets have had a severe impact on small-scale farmers who are unable to keep up with emerging trends.

Under these circumstances, the youth in Sri Lanka have lost interest in agriculture as a livelihood. The sector is still standing only becauseof direct and indirect support measures provided by the government,such as free irrigation and extension, fertiliser subsidy, support prices, and ad hoc trade protection.

Smart farmingcan provide solutions to most of these problems. One of the key benefits is that it helps farmers increase their yields and reduce costs by optimising the different inputs (fertiliser, irrigation) used.

Connected devices allow for the collection of large amounts of data that can optimise agricultural practices and help adapt to different climatic conditions. Blockchain-enabled tracking and traceability mechanismscan trigger value chain interactions and improve the quality and safety of the food produced.

Being able to remotely control farming activities will offer more flexibility to farmers and help make it more attractive to the younger generation.

Smart Farming in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a vibrant ICT sector, with some e-agriculture solutions already in place or in the pipeline. While high impact 4IR technologies have not entered the agriculture sector yet, there are various government and privateinitiatives to improve production in an efficient and sustainable way.

In this regard, the Sri Lanka E-agriculture Strategy was developed to harness the ICT potential to achieve agricultural goals. The Department of Agriculture (DOA) and other relevant organisations have already initiated interactive ICT and mobile platforms and software applications to disseminate agriculture information.

Additionally, several e-agriculture programmes that include a seed and planting material management information system, progress monitoring system for National Food Production Programme, and a QR code system for good agricultural practices (GAP) certification are being developed.

Sri Lanka’s ‘E-agriculture’ Strategy has also identified ways in which ICT can improve existing agriculture systems in terms of information collection, efficiency, and services in several areas.

These include integrated agriculture advisory, food crop forecasting, marketing, pesticide registration,plant protection,research information management,soil testing, natural resources management, plant genetic resources, plant quarantine, weather forecasting and advisory, land use and soil conservation mapping.

Today, many young and middle-aged farmers use mobile phones for agriculture marketing as well as to receive weather alerts through short messages, voice mails, and apps. Sri Lanka’s large agri-business companies have already started popularising drones, sensors, satellite image techniques, and nanotechnology for farming operations.These developments are likely to motivate young farmers and they will embrace these technologies as demand grows.

Way Forward

Digital transformation is essential for Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector given its significant potentialto address thechallenges and constraints,such as low productivity, poor product quality, and climate change. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is lagging behind in introducing the latestagri technologies. But, moving away from traditional farming and towards high tech agriculture is a step in the right direction.

Since Sri Lanka is still a developing country, more research and development (R&D) needs to be carried out to improve the use of modern technologies. Both the government and private sector involvement in R&D should be strengthened by collaborating with more foreign institutions as well as with local universities.

The country’s poor, marginalised farmers may not be able to use these sophisticated technologies yet. Hence,the government will need to adopt different approaches according to farmers’ needs, such aspublic private producer partnership (4P) systems with different management and incentive schemes, shared platforms, financing schemes,and subsidised servicesto bring about technological transformation.


Manoj Thibbotuwawa is a Research Fellow and Nimesha Dissanayaka are Research Assistants at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). They can be contacted at manoj@ips.lk and nimesha@ips.lk.



Similar reports and studies can be around at the IPS Blog ‘Talking Economics’ – http://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/