By R. D. Siripala

Introduction

Agriculture is the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy; it contributes significantly to export income and contributes approximately 7.5 per cent of gross domestic products (GDP).1 Over 30 per cent of Sri Lankans are employed in the 2 agricultural sector.2  Demand for agricultural produce at the national level has grown exponentially over the decades due to population growth. At the same time, the agriculture sector is vulnerable to changes in climate making agriculture more challenging and resulting in declines in productivity. To meet this expanding demand, farmers must become more adept at anticipating climate changes, supported by the development of a Training & Visit (T&V) System by the Government of Sri Lanka. The T&V system initially significantly contributed to agricultural development, but the system is unable to address the current needs of the farmers.

Through the Information and Communication Technology Act No. 27 of 2003, (ICT Act), the Government of Sri Lanka has taken the breakthrough decision to use information and communications technology (ICT) tools in national development. The agriculture sector is a main target for empowermnet through ICT. The aim is to improve the accessibility of agricultural technical and market information and other farmer-centric government and private-sector services. It is hoped that these measures will ensure the food security of the country through planned food crop production, while ensuring farm incomes are optimized.

ICT innovation by the Department of Agriculture

The traditional extension system of the Department of Agriculture (DOA), which has been operating for many decades in the country, has its own strengths in respect of strong infrastructure and capacities. The extension system together with agricultural development research has ensured the food security of the nation. However, the DOA is currently taking measures to merge ICT-supported agriculture extension systems with the traditional systems to strengthen and improve the efficiency of the extension system by using ICT.

Crop-based information repositories on interactive multimedia CD-ROMs
Interactive multimedia CD-ROMs (IMM CDROMs) are stand-alone applications developed using multimedia authoring tools. Each IMM CDROM includes technical information on a food crop or other agricultural subject, such as integrated pest management, micro-irrigation or protected agriculture. The production of IMM CDROMs has helped to pool almost all of the technical information on new crop varieties, good agricultural practices, post-harvest technologies, value addition, success stories, etc.

Figure 1. Interactive multimedia CD-ROM on food crops in Sinhala and Tamil languages

Considering the low computer literacy of extension workers, as well as farmers, a familiar concept, similar to reading a book, is used for the interface, including a page-turning facility. The contents are organized into chapters, topics and subtopics and users can also print each page.

Television programmes on agriculture
Television programmes are the most common means of mass media activity and are highly effective in technology transfer, especially in the field of agriculture. Three videos have been produced by the DOA for national broadcast, namely Govi Bimata Arunalu (Agriculture Technology Programme), Mihi Katha Dinuwo (Farmer Success Story) and Ketha Batha Kamatha (Traditional Agriculture). The programmes are very popular among farmers and related groups. The videos have been uploaded to the YouTube and Vimeo, and shared through social media. The statistics show that this has significantly increased access to these videos by interested groups.

Radio programmes on agriculture
In rural Sri Lanka, radio is the most popular mass media for accessing information. Many agriculture programmes have been produced by the DOA and broadcast through community radio stations and national radio channels. The programmes were produced in Sinhala and Tamil languages.

A web-based radio station, KrushiFM, hosted under the domain name of www.krushifm.lk started broadcasting in 2013 with the objective of establishing a dedicated national radio channel for agriculture (Figure 2). Further, an androidbased mobile app has been introduced with the expectation of popularizing KrushiFM among smartphone users (Figure 3).

Figure 2. KrushiFM mobile app Figure 3. KrushiFM website: www.krushifm.lk

 

Websites
a. Official website of the Department of Agriculture

The DOA has also developed an official website, which provides institutional information to staff and the general public. Initially, the static website was developed using hyper text mark-up language (HTML). Then, along with the development of e-Government initiatives and the demand for agricultural technology transfer through the Internet, the website was revamped to include institutional and technical information for the stakeholders in the agriculture sector. Currently, the website is based on a content management system to ensure a user-friendly interface with a decentralized updating facility (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Official website of the Department of Agriculture hosted under the domain name of www.doa.gov.lk

b. WikiGoviya website of the Department of Agriculture
Wikigoviya is a Web 2.0-based initiative that has established a discussion forum to facilitate progressive dialogues among agriculture stakeholders and developed a Wiki-based public agriculture knowledge repository (Agripedia). Further, it is supported by a multimedia-based e-learning system in agriculture. The IMM-CDROMs produced by the DOA on crops and other subjects have been uploaded for e-learning and an online agriculture classified advertising system has been developed to facilitate agricultural e-marketing (Figure 5).

Figure 5. WikiGoviya website of the Department of Agriculture hosted under the domain name of www.goviya.lk

Agriculture Call Centre, 1920
The Agriculture Call Centre known as Govi Sahana Sarana Sevaya was established in 2006 to cater for the quick and timely information dissemination needs of the farmer. It is accessed via the short code, 1920. The call centre is the most popular initiative among farmers and is supported by recording the caller information from each call and video-calling facility. Initially, there were 4 call centre agents providing advice, but this has now increased to 20. They can handle more than 1,000 calls per day. However, the 1920 Agriculture Advisory Service currently receives only around 300 calls per day. The Agriculture Call Centre allowing information to be better tailored to farmers' needs.

Management Information Systems
Real-time information is key for many decisions in agricultural ventures that are characterized by a high-risk environment. Agriculture-based Management Information Systems (MIS) can collect, process, manage and disseminate information to farmers in terms of timely and effective decision-making. The Decision Support System and the Market Information System are two different approaches of MIS applied to support decision-making by farmers, policymakers, extension workers and research officers. Some applications of the MIS system include: (i) Crop Forecasting Information System (CFIS); (ii) Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) Certification System; and (iii) Seed and Planting Material Information System.

Agriculture mobile apps
Smart phones are the most popular sources of information sharing among the local communities in Sri Lanka. Smart phones provide a variety of service platforms to share audio, video, text,images, animations, etc., in addition to the voice call and SMS services available on basic mobile phones. The DOA has started to develop mobile apps. For example, the mobile app Agri Staff is a simple and useful telephone directory, which provides quick access to the contact details of DOA staff and a one-touch dialling facility.

Figure 6. Mobile app of Agri Staff Telephone Directory

Agriculture information dissemination through social media
Social media and smart phones allow content delivery at both a global and local level. The DOA has adopted a variety of strategies to utilize the popularity of social media for sharing information in order to deliver agricultural content. Facebook is the most popular social media in the country, with 5.4 million registered users. The e-Agriculture Working Group has recommended creating an official page for every institute under the DOA to collaborate with user groups. The official pages have initiated various discussions among agricultural interest groups, and this is the simplest way to disseminate agricultural information in an effective manner and allow feedback. Further, the DOA also utilizes the power of other social media such as YouTube, Twitter and Google+ in agricultural technology dissemination. This helps to raise awareness of new technological developments, latest trends, news, etc., among the public.

National policy to support ICTs in agriculture: Sri Lanka e-agriculture strategy

The Government of Sri Lanka has the vision of building a digital economy to provide digital facilities, including e-agriculture, to every citizen in the country. The Sri Lanka e-agriculture strategy identifies the following priority objectives for the agriculture sector:

  • Achieve self-sufficiency in food crops, which may grow locally and save foreign exchange on imports of those food items
  • Increase availability of safe food by promoting eco-friendly practices and minimizing agrochemicals and pesticides in food crop production
  • Ensure food security through appropriate management of buffer stocks
  • Introduce and implement agroecological region-based food-crop cultivation programmes
  • Increase the productivity of crop production through appropriate technologies
  • Establish proper coordination among all agricultural stakeholders in the local food production process and connect all schools, civil organizations and general public to the programme
  • Provide quality inputs for production and establish a proper marketing mechanism for products
  • Build a healthy nation.

Way forward for ICTs in agriculture

The establishment of the National Agriculture Information & Communication Centre of the DOA opened up enormous opportunities to streamline the process of adopting ICTs in agricultural development through coordinating the process of developing e-agriculture solutions. Further, the DOA has formed a high-level body known as the e-Agriculture Working Group to coordinate ICT initiatives and development of e-agriculture solutions. Based on the Sri Lanka e-agriculture strategy, the Working Group has prioritized activities to be addressed immediately and initiated the development process.

1 Central Bank of Sri Lanka, 2016. Central Bank of Sri Lanka Annual Report
2 World Bank, 2017. Employment in Agriculture. Accessed at https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/