The power of data for Nepal’s farmers

13 Nov 2020

This op-ed was first published in the print edition of The Himalayan Times on 6 November 2020.

Bijaya Dallakoti, Prime Ministers Modernization Programme
Bijaya Dallakoti, Prime Ministers Agriculture Modernization Project, MoALD using a mobile-based application to collect ground control points for rice crop mapping in Chitwan district, Nepal (Photo: Laxmi Kandel/MOALD)

Data has become a key driver of growth and change in today’s world. There is growing recognition that data is indispensable for effective planning and decision making in every sector. But the state of digital data in developing countries is far from satisfactory. In Asia, monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remains a challenge due to a lack of accurate data. Data is available only for 36% of the SDG indicators and about one-quarter of all SDGs targets lack evidence related to the environment.

In Nepal an important sector that has long suffered from a lack of quality data is agriculture. National agencies that report crop statistics and yield assessments still use conventional land-based surveys, statistical sampling techniques, and baseline data from three decades ago. The absence of robust data and data sharing mechanisms hinders transparent policy making.

The current leadership at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) is trying to address this situation. It is working with development partners to deploy data science based solutions such as remote sensing based crop monitoring, digitally enabled seed information systems, national agriculture information management systems, and ICT-supported localized agriculture advisories.

Following a successful trial in Chitwan, the ministry and ICIMOD are mapping rice fields in Nepal’s major rice crop zones using remote sensing. Remote sensing uses satellites to collect data over large spatial areas and is thus an excellent tool for agricultural monitoring. It can substantially improve the accuracy of baseline data and make yield assessments more efficient, particularly for major crops like rice, wheat and maize. This technology is especially valuable in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as it involves limited human contact. National and international experts are collecting field data usingmobile apps, and using machine learning techniques and cloud computing platforms to process the data.  The cloud computing platforms and machine learning elements are partly being carried out on Google infrastructure as part of a collaborative effort of ICIMOD, NASA and other counterparts under SERVIR, a joint initiative of USAID and NASA.

Agricultural advisory services are essential for helping Nepali farmers cope with the effects of climate change. Increasing frequency of erratic rainfall, drought and flood have lowered agricultural productivity and hampered their livelihood and food security. As farmers cannot identify crop and livestock problems on their own, they have to rely on a sparsely distributed agriculture extension service.

To address this problem, the agriculture ministry’s National Agricultural Management Information System (NAMIS) generates and provides relevant digital information to farmers in 26 districts in Nepal. In collaboration with Nepal Agricultural Research Council and the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), NAMIS publishes weekly advisory bulletins on cereals, vegetables, fruits, livestock and cash crops for these selected districts. These advisories are prepared by experts from multiple disciplines and help farmers minimize losses resulting from climate uncertainties. The advisories are currently sent from Kathmandu. The ministry is working on establishing digital advisory platforms at the district level in order to address context-specific needs of farmers.

High yielding and climate resilient crops can help farmers cope with climate shocks and uncertainties. To grow such crops, farmers need adequate information on their characteristics, availability, growing requirements, etc. Recognizing this need, the seed quality control centre at the MoALD, in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), developed a digitally enabled seed information system (DESIS). The initiative was carried out with support from USAID under the Nepal Seed and Fertilizer Project. Earlier, seed producers had to wait for at least a year to know where and when to get breeder or foundation seeds for further multiplication.

This had an impact on seed demand forecasting and seed availability. As a result, many farmers did not have timely access to quality seeds, which contributed to low productivity. DESIS provides seed suppliers, producers and farmers ready access to information on seed demand and supply. It includes a seed balance sheet that is updated almost in real time and a digital seed catalogue of officially released crop varieties in Nepal. Farmers and seed companies can select suitable varieties based on their requirements and place their demand online.

Nepal’s agriculture ministry has made commendable efforts to adopt new data-driven technologies. It should also come up with long-term strategies for institutionalizing and sustaining these efforts. A key step would involve revisiting its human resource policy and organizational structure to accommodate qualified professionals and provide them an attractive career path. Likewise, government contract evaluation systems need to account for digital innovations to encourage young entrepreneurs and private investors.

Big data and associated technologies hold immense promise for enhancing agricultural productivity and addressing food security challenges. Through continued and steadfast efforts, Nepal can harness the power of data to transform its agricultural sector and boost its economy.

Faisal M. Qamer is a Remote Sensing Specialist at ICIMOD and AbduRahman Beshir is a Seed Systems Lead at the CIMMYT-South Asia Regional Office in Nepal.