From farm to plate and beyond: The need for ag-tech development in the Sri Lankan rice sector

 Sajeevani Weerasekara   |  

Many believe that the rice-producing sector of Sri Lanka requires urgent transformation. The adoption of emerging technological innovations has the potential to overcome the structural weaknesses of the current rice industry and deliver a more productive, competitive, and sustainable outcome, using a more precise and resource-efficient approach.

Rice is a major crop and a staple food in Sri Lanka. In the subsistence sector, rice is the main crop covering 34% (0.77 million hectares) of the total cultivated area and rice farming is the most important economic activity for the majority of people living in rural areas. Approximately two million farmer families are engaged in rice cultivation island-wide.

Rice supplies 45% of the total calories and 40% of the total protein requirements of the average Sri Lankan. An average man consumes around 114 kilogram of rice per year (including rice and rice-based products) depending on the prices of rice, and other substitutes such as bread, and wheat flour.  It is projected that the demand for rice will increase by 1.1% annually and, to meet this demand, rice production needs to grow at the rate of 2.9% per year.

To continue meeting the local demand for this commodity as well as increasing the country’s rice exports to the international market, it is imperative that rice farming is conducted efficiently and with a high level of productivity.

Though the agricultural policy of the country has always aimed to reach rice self-sufficiency and export, rice and rice-based products are still being imported to some extent. This is because the productivity of the rice sector lags due to various reasons.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the cost of production of paddy in the most productive regions of Sri Lanka averages SLR 30 (USD  0.15) per hectare, which is not competitive enough to participate more in the rice export market.

There is also the need for substantial increases in land and labor productivity to improve competitiveness and break the barriers to enter to the imports market. To attain these goals the rice sector needs more innovation.

The failure to take advantage of agricultural technology has largely contributed to this state of affairs, amongst other factors. On the other hand, it also draws attention to the huge opportunity for exploiting innovation and technology for the betterment of this sector.

Rice farmers in Sri Lanka face a variety of problems like being dependent on outdated equipment and inadequate infrastructure, and restricted access to wider markets resulting in limited profits on crop sales. Most farmers are compelled to use traditional farming methods and rely on traditional channels to purchase raw materials, and resort to the traditional way of distributing the harvest.

Lower resource endowments of smallholder farmers, such as lack of capital and other assets, and poor access to markets and institutions including extension services put them at a disadvantage and prevent them from reaping the benefits from applying technological innovations in agriculture.

Therefore, the government needs to adopt a novel approach to help such farmers by drawing up a program to facilitate this transformation. Government support is critical to reduce the costs of technology, and this can be accomplished by using different management and incentive schemes, such as shared platforms, financing schemes, and subsidized services. Farmer participation in technology usage can also be strengthened through contract farming systems.

Cutting-edge technology in the agriculture sector has become an indispensable need today. It will not only help increase yields but also prove to be more cost-effective at the same time. Ag-tech solutions may further help in addressing structural problems such as choosing the right variety of rice for better earnings by raising the yield per hectare, efficient use of resources such as water, and improving rice quality with the right inputs.

Some of the possible options for increase resource efficiency in the rice farming sector are application of technologies, such as precision agriculture, Laser Land Levelling, direct seeding, integrated crop management, site-specific nutrient management, and climate-resilient rice varieties and cropping methods.

To successfully access the global rice market technologies applicable to storage, distribution, supply chain, food processing, packaging, quality assurance, and accreditation systems are also of paramount importance.

Today, we see a profusion of agri-tech start-ups in many agricultural countries that are addressing many problems faced by farmers and other stakeholders. They are resorting to several layers of data analytics to enhance efficiency and make better informed decisions. These companies have leveraged artificial intelligence (AI), big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), drones, robots, and automated supply chains to build the next layer of data analytics and, thus, boost efficiency.

Many countries now use AI in agricultural drones for spraying and agricultural robots for automated weeding; AI is also used for pest prediction and prevention and harvest estimation, which can help increase farm productivity. These technologies also enable farmers to improve operational efficiency while reducing the need for manual labor.

However, Sri Lanka has been slow to embrace agricultural technology compared to other Asian countries like India. One clear reason for that is the lack of an enabling environment for start-up companies in this sector.

In India though, the situation is more favorable as there are numerous public- and private-funded start-ups  and the Indian government is in the process of creating an environment that encourages ag-tech start-ups.

These start-ups can contribute immensely to the agri and food sectors by providing knowledge and information on modern techniques and by giving instructions to farmers on how to achieve higher productivity and improve the efficiency of the sector. Moreover, by increasing more participants in the rice supply-chain, the country can eliminate the oligopolistic nature of the rice-milling industry and improve positive competitiveness.

Sri Lanka should also optimize technology usage in agriculture. To realize that goal, the government should take steps to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education, especially those disciplines pertinent to the agri and food sectors, among students.

Encouraging start-up culture and conducting technology experiments while studying existing agricultural technologies in the other parts of the world would be of paramount importance for the development of efficient farming practices locally.

In addition, drawing up clear policies and maintaining continuous surveillance on technology driven rice farming practices would be imperative to ensure that productivity is achieved from farm to plate and beyond; thus, the rice farmers would feel empowered to access the global rice market. It will gradually and surely transform Sri Lankan paddy farming into a more efficient production sector that will meet the demands of the local market as well as function as an export-oriented industry in the years to come.

Dr. Weerasekara is an early career researcher with a Ph.D from Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Her research focuses on the impact of climate change on the efficiency and productivity of different resources, adaptation and mitigation methodologies. She is currently working on different projects and researches to improve efficiency in resource technologies in different manufacturing sectors and supply chains.

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