The story of farming is complex in Bangladesh. Agriculture employs around 40 per cent of the labour force; and small farmers are the most prevalent form of producers, making more than 80 per cent of all farmers. Many of these poor people get their food and income by farming small plots of land, often less than the size of a football field!
A key challenge for Bangladesh is to help these small farmers increase production and maximise income to combat hunger and poverty. The difficulties are many that cover diverse areas such as low soil fertility, inadequate capacity to make necessary investments in productive inputs, high risks in production and marketing, low access to pricing and other information and technologies, etc that preclude them to realise optimal production and returns.
In addition, supportive interventions for the small farmers need investments in technological innovations, such as cheap solar-powered water pumps, and giving farmers better access to information about input and output markets through new information technologies. Farming knowledge can now be transferred conveniently through radio, internet, and mobile phones.
Globally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is heralding an exponential pace of technological change, building on digital technologies and spawning new ones; and transforming systems and societies. Already new products and services are reaching the market through leveraging the latest generation of technologies, such as internet of things, virtual reality, bitcoin, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, genomics and bionics. More importantly, physical, digital and biological worlds are merging with each other in a fusion of technologies and creating new worlds of cyber-physical systems.
For the small farmer-dominated Bangladesh agriculture, advances in computing power, connectivity, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and GIS (geographic information system), and other more capable technologies hold a tremendous promise. The key would be structural transformation towards inclusive agriculture and rural development along with supportive high-productivity micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).
For realising 4IR possibilities for the small farmers, policies must bridge the widening gaps between the skilled, who are 'scarce', and the unskilled, who are 'numerous', workers. In Bangladesh, economic growth has not been inclusive enough so far to reduce economic inequalities. Nearly 40 million people still live in poverty; and 20 million of them subsist in extreme poverty. Decent employment growth is critical especially in the rural areas in both farm and nonfarm sectors.
There is a rapid rate of outmigration from the rural areas; more young people are migrating to urban areas for better employment and for seeking temporary employment in overseas markets for better livelihoods. This is contributing towards shortages of young labour force in the rural areas and starting a process of feminisation of agriculture. But women in agriculture are highly exploited and have low productivity and low returns. Any transformation in agriculture must therefore address the constraints to women in agriculture.
The government is confronting many of these challenges. In particular, the 'Digital Bangladesh' programme is working for transforming the country's rural economy and creating skilled jobs in the rural areas. Higher investments in transportation, power, internet access and other areas are critical to creating additional employment opportunities for women and youth in the rural areas.
Digital Bangladesh's strategic cornerstones, Union Information and Services Centres (UISCs) are one-stop service outlets operating in all 4,547 Union Parishads (UP, lowest tier of local government) of the country. Through the use of information and communications technology (ICT), UISC brings different types of information related to government, livelihood and private services to the doorstep of the citizens in the rural areas. It saves time, cost and has made operations relatively hassle free. Operating under the Public-Private-Peoples' Partnership (PPPP) modality, these Centres are run by local entrepreneurs, hosted by UPs and supported by the central government. These Centres provide access points for delivery of various electronic services to villagers, promote digital and financial inclusion, encourage rural entrepreneurship, and build rural capacities and livelihoods, offering a bottom-up approach to social change.
For the small farmers, these create opportunities to shift from input-intensive to knowledge-intensive agriculture. Efficient access to new technologies can improve the timeliness of crop planting, secure the best market prices through market information and e-market reforms, provide credit and fertiliser subsidies via direct bank transfers eliminating the cost of financial intermediaries, and improve agricultural extension. Combining with improved seed supply and land and water management, productivity and cropping intensities can be increased in a sustainable manner to improve small farmers' livelihoods.
The creation of an online platform for farmers that integrates agricultural markets online, will allow the farmers and traders alike to view all agriculture product marketing-related information and services, commodity arrivals and prices, and buy and sell trade offers, thus helping farmers bid for the best prices across markets. Similarly, comprehensive crop insurance may be introduced covering all farmers.
The government can invest in mapping the country's aquifers, and use relevant technology to manage water demand. For example, if the relationships between rainfall and groundwater levels under alternative modes of irrigation and farming are quantified, prioritisation of prospective water and irrigation investments can be done.
More investments in research are needed to develop multi-resistant crops. The country needs to move in the right direction in genomics. Such crops do not necessarily involve multinational monopolies; these can be grown by the poor farmers; and many of these offer increased resistance to extreme climatic conditions.
Digitised land registration, mobile phones and 'Uberised' tractor services are possibilities that can contribute to improved farm management by the small farmers. Ensuring title guarantees and increased security of land tenure to these farmers will stimulate land rentals by nonviable smallholders and land consolidation. With only a limited number of villages having banking services within five kilometers, the government needs to further encourage agent banking and rapidly expand mobile phone payment technology.
The digital developments provide a useful platform for expansion of Bangladesh's public safety nets as well. The Public Food Distribution System (PFDS), one of the world's largest safety nets programmes of its kind, distributes food grains to the poor and disadvantaged rural residents. The government has focused on reforming PFDS using new technologies. Already, there is now far less pilfering, thanks to several digitisation measures which are implemented. Further, electronic point-of-sale devices may be installed at distribution points to track sales of food grains to cardholders on a real-time basis. The policy shift -- in-kind cash transfers in place of food distribution -- is also being facilitated by digital technology. Cash subsidies are being transferred directly to beneficiaries' bank accounts.
Despite technology's promises, there remains a need for substantial increase in old-fashioned investments to catch up with the backlog in physical infrastructure and education to achieve a geographically more dispersed development away from the big cities. Literacy needs to be expanded and the gender divide addressed with investments, particularly in rural women's education and training.
Geographical application of new technologies is still limited in rural areas; many farmers remain unaware of these advances. Insufficient connectivity in rural areas, along with a lack of basic computer knowledge and literacy, hinder development. Substantial investments are needed in physical infrastructure, power, broadband, transportation and education, particularly in rural areas and among the poorest population groups, in order to truly reap the benefits of 4IR.
Dr. Mustafa Kamal Mujeri is Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).
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