Education

Technological bounty to help coconut farmers

 By RP Siegel

In November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan tore through the coconut growing region of Eastern Vasaiyas in the Philippines, destroying some 33 million trees and impacting over a million coconut farmers, the backbone of a coconut industry that is worth a billion dollars and growing. RP Siegel explains how Grameen Foundation is building “Resilience of Smallholder Farmers in Southeast Asia”, using the best of what modern technology has to offer: mobile data collection and analytics, satellite weather data and imagery to help with crop planning, early warning system for major weather events, mapping of disease outbreaks using agricultural modeling and pest prevention and control techniques to reduce crop losses. All important planks in the construction of a resilient agricultural community…

Back in November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan tore through the coconut growing region of Eastern Vasaiyas in the Philippines, destroying some 33 million trees and impacting over a million coconut farmers. The Philippine Coconut Authority has estimated losses at $396 million. Farmers are replanting, but it takes between six and eight years before the new trees will produce.

The disaster underscores the vulnerability of these farmers, which has long been recognized, and was the subject of a proposal by the Grameen Foundation entitled “Building Resilience of Smallholder Farmers in Southeast Asia.” This project was recently selected as one of eight winners of the Global Resilience Challenge from among some 500 applicants. The challenge “focused on bringing together people and organizations from across sectors to collaborate on innovative and transformative solutions to the toughest resilience challenges.” Winners each received a cash prize of $1 million to carry out their vision.

“These farmers are the backbone of a coconut industry that is worth a billion dollars and growing,” says Whitney Gantt, Director for Mobile Agriculture at the Grameen Foundation. “And yet, unfortunately, coconut farmers are some of the poorest in the Philippines.”

The list of hardships these farmers face includes vulnerability to natural disasters such as typhoons and pest attacks, market volatility, and powerlessness in negotiating fair prices for their crops with the giants that dominate the market.

Farm productivity has been low. The farmers lack diversification of income. Domingo Brivia, a small-scale coconut farmer from Barangay Tacurana in Eastern Visayas, said, “Coconut farming is my main source of income, and when the typhoon hit, I lost all my trees.”

He may need a loan to keep going, but small farmers like Brivia are often excluded from financial services. Other agencies, such as The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have come in with temporary relief after the storm.

“There’s not much you can do about a typhoon,” acknowledges Gantt, “but what you can do is build in resilience at a foundational level.”

This is really on the leading edge as far as this combination of technology and agriculture, particularly the early warning system. The team's global partners include technology providers, government agencies, as well as coconut and chocolate companies

The Grameen team will seek to do just that, using the best of what modern technology has to offer. Grameen, through nearly 10 years of working with poor farmers in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Colombia, has learned to recognize the critical importance of the entire web of public and private players that farmers are a part of. Says, Gantt, “One of our key learnings has been, to ensure that all stakeholders see the value in what we provide.”

They will provide a host of services and skills including:

  • Encouraging major producers to source directly from farmers
  • Helping farmers to improve quality, and meet market standards and certifications (Fair Trade, organic, etc.)
  • Helping farmers diversify their revenue and crops
  • Helping farmers improve productivity, (e.g. using salt as a fertilizer)
  • Helping farmers access financial services

In addition, there is a major mobile technology effort that will enable the following:

These are all important planks in the construction of a resilient agricultural community. But, the glue that holds it all together is the relationships between farmers and the various agencies they work with. This, says Gantt, can be fostered through the participation of “trusted people on the ground.”

The idea is to identify and work with existing agents who might be buyers, or government workers or representatives of the Philippine Coconut Authority. These individuals will use tools including automated analytics and mobile dashboards. The results of their analyses will be sent out via simple SMS text messages, a technology that most farmers are already comfortable with.

The project will take place over 18 months. In that time, the organization hopes to reach 20,000 farmers. Beyond that, Grameen hopes that these tools and practices will be replicable for other tree crops such as coffee and palm oil, possibly worldwide.

Says Gantt, “This is really on the leading edge as far as this combination of technology and agriculture, particularly the early warning system.” The team’s global partners include technology providers, government agencies, as well as coconut and chocolate companies.

In closing, Gantt adds, “We believe we have a holistic solution. Mobile is a key enabler, but it’s really not sufficient on its own. It’s really about the communities on the ground and the farmers themselves, and ensuring we have that human agency by working directly with them and by allying with all the other key players to ensure both sustainability and scalability.”

To Domingo Brivia and 2 million other Philippine coconut farmers, that sustainability can’t come soon enough.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.