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Pacific agribusiness enters the digital age

Dossier: Smart-technologies

In the Pacific region, where most of the population makes a living from agriculture, digital innovations can help transform the sector.

© Rudolf Hahn / FAO

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Pacific

The vitality of digital innovation in the region was highlighted in the latest Pacific AgriHack competition, with awards for three promising initiatives.

A series of digital innovations are giving the Pacific region’s agriculture and nutrition sector a major boost. This was clearly demonstrated by the participation of 15 teams from six of the region’s countries in the December 2018 Pacific Agrihack Lab event, organised by the CTA in Tonga as part of the Innov4AgPacific project. Such enthusiasm for agricultural technologies is all the more remarkable given that, in some countries, almost 80% of the population is involved in the sector.

Participants received 2 days of training in key areas of agribusiness – including access to finance, designing a viable business model, and understanding intellectual property rights. At the end of the process, three organisations were selected by the jury for their “clear and inspiring vision of the difference they want to make in their community,” stated Brendan O’Connell, member of the jury and AgriTech adviser based in New Zealand. Each of the three winners received €5,000 to help them develop and market their digital innovations.

In the Pacific region, where most of the population makes a living from agriculture, digital innovations can help transform the sector.

In the Pacific region, where most of the population makes a living from agriculture, digital innovations can help transform the sector.

© Rudolf Hahn / FAO

The winning innovations were each designed to solve specific problems at different stages of the value chain. Fijian company, TraSeable Solutions Pte Ltd, for example, has built on its experience in the fishing industry to create TraSeable Farms, a mobile application and blockchain platform which allows producers, buyers, logistics providers, cooperatives, processors and exporters to “fill the information gap in the agriculture sector.”

In concrete terms, the application should enable all players along the agricultural value chain to share relevant information on commodities, to have easier access to markets, facilitate logistics and provide training. The blockchain tool will complement this system by enabling farmer organisations or fishing companies in the region to register their products and commodities, and to track them on a platform that is accessible to all stakeholders. “Our work on traceability enables us to create value for agricultural products from the Pacific: we can now guarantee the origin and trace the history of these products, which provides our customers with a unique business advantage,” explains Kenneth Katafono, the executive director and co-founder of TraSeable Solutions with his wife Shaunalee.

Sharing information

“When data is shared, intelligent tools allow the information to be personalised for the end users – not just communicated to a wide audience, but really adapted to users,” says O’Connell, explaining the significance of the innovations selected by the jury. “These two processes have the potential to build capacity in a sustainable, dynamic and powerful way.”

This is the case of the MyKana application, developed by the South Pacific University and the National Food and Nutrition Centre of Fiji. MyKana seeks to tackle nutritional issues in the region. In Fiji, where the application has already been tested, more than half of the adult population is obese and half of the total population is anaemic, despite the abundance of fresh produce. The application allows users to record what they eat and to compare their actual diet to a balanced diet, rather than counting calories as most applications. Additionally, the app provides lists of locally available products and foods. It can also be used offline, which is a clear advantage in parts of the country where connection is poor.

The US$5,000 will enable the team to develop a new ‘Grow your own food’ section on the app. “Since we promote balanced diets, we have decided to bolster the MyKana app with a component on food production, especially in urban areas,” says project manager Irene Yee Chief.

Thanks to the financial and technical support of the Pacific AgriHack Lab, the MyKana app should soon be available in 12 Pacific region countries and translated into several languages.

Understanding users

Beyond the importance of understanding the needs of the future users of an innovation, “connectivity, digital literacy, adoption and financing are, of course, significant challenges,” says O'Connell. “But with an in-depth understanding of users and a desire to change things, some of us will find the way to meet these challenges.” This is the case with the third winner of the competition, the Malaita Youth in Business (MYBA) association in the Solomon Islands, which brings together about 150 young people involved in the production and sale of pork and poultry meat.

MYBA has designed the MalaAgri application (still in its development phase), which aims to facilitate and promote the supply of pork and poultry products by connecting association members with each other and with potential buyers. “Our islands are scattered, so logistics and operational costs are challenges that we must face," confirms Hika Gonne, adviser to the association. “The app will significantly reduce operating costs. In addition, information and training tools will be available through the app.”

Significant progress

Many obstacles remain, but the role of technology in transforming agriculture is increasingly being recognised. “Digitisation will increase production efficiency, reduce losses including post-harvest losses, improve preparedness and responsiveness to natural disasters, and finally bring transparency from production to the market. Nevertheless, the focus must be on effective user engagement for sustainability,” says Judith Francis, senior coordinator of the CTA's Science and Technology Policy Programme. “Digitisation also has the potential to attract young people and modernise the sector, given the ageing of the agricultural workforce and the fact that land is increasingly left fallow – in Tonga, for example, 40% of agricultural land is not used. Initiatives such as MYIBA's MalAgri application in the Solomon Islands have an enormous potential to modernise the agricultural sector. However, these initiatives need financial support, infrastructure and mentoring.”