Precision agriculture for smallholder farmers in Vietnam: How the Internet of Things helps smallholder paddy farmers use water more efficiently

blogs.worldbank.org

“Paddy is our life, but many people don’t want us to grow paddy anymore,” laments Pham Van Tuan, a rice farmer in Can Tho province of Vietnam. “Big people from Ho Chi Minh City say that our paddy is causing climate change and water scarcity in the world.”

Paddy cultivation emits over 10 percent of global agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and consumes 21 percent of the total water volume used for global crop production.  Water is increasingly scarce in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, which has been hit by record droughts in recent years. Solutions that help farmers like Pham Van Tuan to grow rice while drastically reducing GHG emission and water usage would be a game-changer for the Mekong Delta. Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) is one such practice where rice fields are alternately flooded and dried, and water levels kept low during the flooded stage. This irrigation practice reduces water use up to 28 percent and methane emissions up to 48 percent. With such immense benefits, one would expect that this practice is applied far and wide. But that is not so. Why?

Alternate wetting and drying can be challenging to implement. Farmers need to know for any stage of the rice growth cycle the optimal irrigation amount for their soil conditions and specific paddy variety. To make sure to get the water quantity and timing correct, farmers must measure the water levels often and irrigate as needed. Ideally, their fields are leveled, so that rice plants anywhere in the field get flooded during the flooding periods. Farmers should also have autonomous access to irrigation with sufficient water supply to be able to pump water whenever their field needs it. Also, in institutional settings where farmers pay little or not at all for water and do not receive carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they have little financial incentives to do so.

The Korea World Bank Partnership Facility financed a pilot to apply Internet of Things (IoT) technology to address some of the challenges farmers face when applying AWD.  Tra Vinh University implemented the pilot. MimosaTEK, a Vietnamese start-up, developed the technology. This is how it works: A sensor measures the water level in the rice field and sends the information to the cloud-based management software. The farmer can monitor the actual and the recommended water levels on a smartphone application, which helps him determine the best time to irrigate the rice and the optimal amount of water to apply. He can operate the water pump through the mobile phone application or manually. In addition to the prerequisites for AWD mentioned above, IoT AWD requires mobile or internet connectivity, electricity, and access to a smartphone with connectivity.

The pilot found that IoT technology is technically feasible to apply with smallholder farmers. The system runs reliably with an uptime close to 100 percent, consistent precision in measuring water levels, and minor troubleshooting, outages, or maintenance. The IoT system is user friendly for farmers, and they appreciate its precision and convenience. Farmers applying IoT used between 13 to 20 percent less water than farmers applying conventional AWD.

Farmer checking the AWD mobile application from the comfort of his home
Farmer checking the AWD mobile application from the comfort of his home.

“This is so convenient. I can observe the water level in my field and accordingly turn my irrigation pump on and off from the comfort of my home”, claimed Pham Van Tuan. “It also saves water and energy.”

Phan Van Tuan, together with 95 percent of the other 80 farmers who participated in the pilot over two seasons, want to continue using the IoT system. Over 90 percent of farmers would pay for the system.

Given this success, the government plans to scale up the use of Internet of Things technology with rice farmers in the Mekong Delta. As it does, it will draw on the lessons learned from this pilot.

Setup of the IoT system.
Setup of the IoT system.

So what lessons did we learn? We learned that experience is important—farmers previously exposed to conventional AWD got more quickly used to operating the IoT system, which increased the effectiveness of the technology. Considering these factors, capacity building for farmers should not only focus on the practical and technical skills to utilize the IoT system but also incorporate good agronomic practices. Knowledge of the system also matters—farmers who installed and maintained the pipes and operating the system themselves generally did better.

Secondly, certain conditions are required to allow farmers to get the most out of IoT technology.The sites must have access to electricity and connectivity to transmit data to controllers and the cloud. Farmers need access to smartphones. Farmers also benefit most when their field conditions meet the prerequisites for AWD—leveled, larger size plots can help justify the investment. Using IoT technology cannot make up for suboptimal sites.

Another important lesson is to keep it simple. Keeping the IoT solution simple and tailored to the users’ needs will be conducive for adoption. The solution also must be cost-effective from the farmers’ perspective.

Finally, the public sector has a key role to play. Technology providers typically require support to reach out to a larger number of smallholders and arrange for agronomic input services. The public sector can help with facilitating linkages between the different players. The public sector can also help create favorable conditions and link stakeholders. This support would reduce the risks for actors to pursue IoT AWD technology while creating substantial benefits in the form of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable use of water.

Screenshots of the mobile application.
Screenshots of the mobile application.

Watch this video to learn more about the pilot and this video to learn how the IoT system facilitates AWD. To learn about how IoT transforms agriculture around the world, watch here for a World Bank webinar.

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