In February 2021, the EcoProMIS project hosted two workshops with rice growers to demonstrate advances with the digital platform and to better understand grower interests and needs.
More than 120 participants joined across the workshops, held February 16th in Tolima and February 17th in Casanare. Surveys administered after the workshop showed that a wide array of participants joined, including rice growers, agricultural assistants or technical assistants, agricultural engineers as well as university students.
Providing value to growers
The workshop covered a series of topics, starting first with an introduction and summary of the EcoProMIS platform and providing further context with a timeline of our project activities and progress to date.
The workshop aimed to demonstrate the different services on the platform and how these create value for growers. With the help of agricultural engineers and specialists at Fedearroz, we explained different prediction services that the platform aims to offer through a suite of mobile applications and web interface.
These digital services will provide information about output based on farm climate, management, and phenotyping data. These are designed to support farmers regarding their own plots of rice. We demonstrated visualization tools, which compare the user’s crop to others in the area. Finally, we demonstrated diagnostic tools for crops which use geo-referenced data to measure crop nutrition and the phenotyping stage.
We met with rice growers for workshops in February 2021
Closer working relationships
Fedearroz also took the opportunity to share about their own work with precision agriculture technology and drone and satellite imagery. Agronomists who were present remarked that these types of projects are very important to the rice-growing region and suggested a closer relationship with the growers and water providers (for irrigation) so that they can all access these intelligent digital platforms.
Questions were asked about how the EcoProMIS crop production forecasting works, what variables are considered, and how the platform uses images to analyze crop nutrition and phenotyping stages. Here we were grateful for the presence of technical assistants, as they were able to explain some of the nuances of the platform and its functionality to growers with whom they were familiar, while also promoting the benefits of the platform.
Listening to growers’ needs After the presentation, we conducted a brief survey about record keeping habits and data collection preferences, as well as some demographic information in order for us to better understand the needs of growers.
The survey results gave us an improved understanding of how to develop the platform and what features would be most important for growers and technical specialists who might help growers. We understand that the most important product will be the mobile application, but also heard a request to provide a web or desktop version for those who are used to using Excel for record keeping. Having different “users” such as growers and technical specialists who could both input information about the same field was another need that became clear.
Survey results also revealed that all participants would be interested in using the application from cellphones to enter and store data. Many of them have already been using digital methods for record keeping (81% of survey respondents in Tolima and 92% in Casanare used Excel).
For our team from Agricompas, CIAT and Solidaridad, it was insightful that growers differed from technical specialists in their record keeping habits. Growers tended to record information about production, inputs used, labor costs and output; whereas technical specialists were more interested in crop nutrition, soil health, and pests and disease affecting crops.
We aim to hold future sessions to discuss more features of the EcoProMIS platform as they are created and continue listening to feedback from growers and technical specialists. Soon they will be able to plug and play the prototype applications.
We were encouraged that the University of Ibagué is interested in participating in these projects and contribute research and training towards co-creating an innovation ecosystem in the rice production sector. We look forward to continuing our collaboration with all of the existing and potential new EcoProMIS partners that can deliver value to the rice sector in Colombia.
By Nicolás Gonzalez, Business Development Manager at Agricompas
The last few months have been challenging, but also revealing for EcoProMIS and our approach to entering the market. While working hard to develop a comprehensive platform for data analytics, we are doing extensive market research with each of the stakeholders involved in the value chain for rice and agriculture in general.
EcoProMIS is a platform that collects and processes data into analytics from many different sources, providing a complete overview of the production chain. Establishing a link with each of the actors involved in the chain is fundamental. For this reason, our business and product development team work side by side with these stakeholders with the purpose of creating services that generate value and become the source of the company’s revenue.
For the market analysis, which is comprised of the study of both its size and the possible services to offer, a series of interviews and validations have been conducted with each of the stakeholders.
The main stakeholders we are engaging are drawn from the rice milling sector, agri-insurance, credit, seed, machinery, fertilizer and agrochemical suppliers. All of these have a key role in rice production and for which intelligent information is relevant in the decision-making of their business, improving competitiveness and optimising their processes.
Access to information is the critical factor
One of the common factors that the Agricompas team found in the interviews conducted with each of the key actors mentioned above, is that information for them is considered as their guide in daily operations, in the prediction of supply and demand, and in the management of decision making with respect to their business strategy.
Today there is no platform like EcoProMIS and the different actors mentioned above could see clearly the business advantage it would lend them: the possibility of knowing and predicting the yield of farmers’ production, seeing and mitigating risks for the credits that most of them offer, and the management of inventories and supply and demand.
Thanks to this market feedback, we have been able to generate valuable information products, taking our access to satellite images, artificial intelligence, climate information and data provided by farmers themselves, to generate differentiation in the market and value for platform users, making agriculture in Colombia more competitive through better decisions in crop management.
Best services, better conditions for farmers
With the development of the EcoProMIS platform, after market validation and the approval of rice farmers, we are creating a conducive environment for the innovation and growth in the agricultural ecosystem in Colombia.
The information for each of the actors in the chain translates into better products and services for farmers, because with this understanding of production, they are able to better identify their needs and their ability to pay and manage risks, all of which in turn translates into a considerable improvement in the structuring and costing of products.
Technology and access to information are part of the new generation of agriculture that is evolving worldwide. We believe that EcoProMIS is the platform responsible for bringing it to the life of each of the farmers who are part of the project and to the door of each of the companies that are part of the production chain.
EcoProMIS provides users not only with information, but with a valuable tool for daily operations, decision-making, and the way in which users innovate new products and services.
Over the last month or two the Agricompas science team have been making visits to rice fields in the Tolima region in Colombia. Travelling the five hours from Bogotá, the journey is a reminder of just how big this beautiful country is.
The two scientists are using these trips to better monitor, understand, and support the collection of accurate crop data. Inspections of soil and water took place, as well as looking at our cutting edge technology that collects weather data as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
These trips are in close collaboration with another member of the project consortium, Fedearroz. Their technicians were on hand to demonstrate data collection techniques and to reflect on best practices and quality control measures.
Dr Gil and Dr Bojacá inspected the rice crop, which is just starting to germinate. This is the fifth cycle of rice crop data that the EcoProMIS project is collecting from both the Tolima and Casanare districts.
The rice seed in Tolima is just starting to germinate
In addition to these five cycles of data, we have access to a much larger historical database of rice farming, and our team is combining this information in order to create and strengthen our crop model. This model is thus becoming more reliable (‘robust’) as we add more data, including phenological, weather, and satellite imagery.
As we prepare to enter the fifth year of the project, it is exciting to see how a huge amount of collected data has now been processed through our science and IT work into useful practical outputs that will directly benefit farmers.
Via mobile apps, these growers are able to access yield calculators and other tools to help them maximise their farm output and move towards our shared goal of sustainable optimisation.
Our science team will continue to make these regular visits as the project grows from strength to strength and we look towards rolling out this unique service to rice growers in Colombia and beyond.
The world is changing. Every day we see how new technologies are being developed and many of us may have come to dread the idea of being displaced by a machine. But that is not the way of things. Technology is meant to make our lives easier, and we believe that the coexistence between traditional methods and newly developed ones is possible, if not meant to be.
In recent years, agricultural data analytics has become one of the top edge tendencies in terms of sustainable development globally. This means that there is a lot of research and a lot of projects currently trying to understand agricultural dynamics and how to use information in order to optimise processes and achieve sustainable objectives.
Although this is a very beautiful statement, the reality growers are facing on a daily basis, and how this information is to be gathered, processed and used, represents a huge challenge not only for farmers but for the whole agricultural value-chain.
Agriculture in LMIC countries still relies on manual labor. The culture of innovation, technology, insurance, good financial practices and data analytics is still in a juvenile stage.
Nevertheless, governments and private capital are incentivising fast growth through technology and new services are becoming more common every day.
Innovation and Market Growth
For Agricompas, a data analytics company, innovation is the only way to break through such barriers and use knowledge to evolve the growing market. This is our main drive, our oxygen and our compass. As Harvard Business Review’s article: Breaking down the barriers to innovation states:
“To us, innovation doesn’t mean mere inventiveness. In our work we define it as: something different that creates value.”
As we work with our Colombian partners on agricultural big-data, we face the challenge of gathering, processing and delivering useful information in the context of market needs and opportunities. By doing this, we look to make our EcoProMIS platform a value generator for growers, governments, and financial and insurance institutions.
Analytics for Decision Support
In order to capture what really drives the agricultural market in terms of financial services, risk management and productivity optimisation, our innovation process aims to understand the market and develop tailored solutions that make the decision-making process more efficient, thus giving business intelligence the recognition and merit it deserves for the immense toolkit it provides us with.
We believe that by bringing sustainable agriculture into the digital era, better conditions for growers may be achieved. We believe that when real value is generated it can also be garnered.
We believe that corporate institutions can see a benefit as well, using high quality information and business intelligence, improving their margins, creating new delivery methods, enhancing R&D and, finally, increasing sales.
With the richness of precise, accurate and relevant information, we enable an increase to the market size of agro insurance and provide the much-needed agronomic crop management data that is necessary for a new and creative product development ecosystem.
The world is changing. And so are we. Breaking through the barriers of convention, we have come to innovate and leave the world in better shape than how we found it. We believe that a new era for sustainable agriculture and analytics has come at last.
By Jorge Torres-León, José Monsalve, Cristian Angarita from Cenipalma
Over the past few decades, huge growth has been shown in geospatial technology applications in different fields worldwide. As for projects in agriculture, there has been a considerable increase in the use of images provided to us by earth observation satellites. These images allow us to obtain a top-down view of very large areas, to analyse the terrain, and to have better data for decision making.
Like all technology, the use of satellite images has both advantages and disadvantages. Although it is possible to have good quality images of almost any location on the planet, its most noticeable disadvantage is that since the sensor is inside a satellite orbiting at very high altitudes, it captures the clouds, thus creating a ‘mask’ above the objects requiring observation. Colombia, being in a tropical area, has a very high density of clouds most of the time, making this a frequent difficulty.
This is where we find the importance and efficiency of using other technology, namely unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), since they operate at lower altitudes. As regulated by the Colombian Aeronautics Authority, all UAV flights that we conduct are below 150m and thus drones flying over oil palm crops are able to capture very high resolution images free of clouds.
Drone flights support farmers with decision making
Equipped with multispectral and thermal sensors, our UAVs have collected images in oil palm plantations in different areas of Colombia. Regular flights means that the EcoProMIS project is able to achieve continuous monitoring and comparison of the development of the plants. Different phenological (growth) stages of the crop are observed, including the unproductive, stabilisation, and productive phases.
Through multispectral images, such as those seen below, it is possible to perform calculations using the spectral bands being captured by the sensors. One approach we use is the vegetation index, in which it is possible to remotely detect the status of individual plants in terms of growth, pest infestation, water stress, flooded areas, nutritional deficiencies, systemic diseases, etc.
For the agricultural sector, this type of information is extremely important. The EcoProMIS platform sends such information directly to the grower’s mobile phone, and this near real time data allows farmers to take preventive measures to support crop performance.
Example of data types from our drone flights.
Another technique we use is with images acquired by the thermal sensor on the drones, which provide information on the temperature of each of the surfaces within the study area. Using this technology, a farmer can pinpoint problems associated with disease and water stress. The acquisition of spectral images can be scheduled on a daily basis to quickly identify and quantify unhealthy plants, such as those suffering from chlorosis. Early identification allows farmers to make decisions in a timely manner so as to protect their crops and yields.
Connected weather stations
Digitally-connected weather stations are another form of high-tech equipment being used by the EcoProMIS project to support farmers. These have been installed in experimental plots and offer the advantage of knowing in real time the climatic conditions such as rain, temperature, humidity, etc.
It is essential to combine data collected by the weather stations with the data from drone images and oil palm models, as almost 70% of the crop performance can be explained by the surrounding climatic conditions.
Greenhouse gas data
Currently, our project collects GHG data through eddy covariance towers in two different palm regions in the country. This system allows us to quantify the CO2 (carbon dioxide) that is absorbed by the oil palm during its photosynthetic process as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane and even water vapor. Through these measurements it is also possible to calculate in detail the evaporation of the ecosystem.
Eddy covariance tower in one of our oil plam fields
These high-tech systems allow more precise readings of environmental variables, such as relative humidity, atmospheric temperature, direction and wind speed, precipitation, etc. All these variables are of critical importance in establishing the influence of weather conditions on the development of oil palm cultivation as well as the effect the crop itself has on the environment.
By combining the data from satellites, drones, weather stations, and GHG towers we have a rich and detailed understanding of each farm. When this data is turned into knowledge services (such as yield-prediction) and delivered through a mobile dashboard, growers are supported so that they can make rapid and intelligent decisions in their farm management.
By Richard Strange, Head of Engineering at Agricompas
As individuals we all grow in wisdom and capability when we take time to reflect on our actions and find lessons to apply to tomorrow’s challenges. We look at our achievements and the memories that are anchored around them. We use them to guide us in becoming better in both our professional and personal lives. Modern business is very much the same. In the modern world, when a business moves, the byproduct of their actions is data.
Agricultural Data Gap
Whether it is a financial officer’s log of transactions, the record of work hours from an employee’s timesheet, or the number of clicks a website receives each day. It is rare to find a part of a business that isn’t measured or collected, either directly or by proxy through other measures. Yet in agriculture, little information is available around many crucial farming practices that often mean the difference between a bumper crop or financial devastation for families and communities.
It is not enough to say that you have an employee, or a website, or an invoice. The crucial questions are if the employee is doing their work, if the website is drawing attention, if the invoice is correct. Yet farmers are not able to answer critical questions about their own farms. They have sown their seeds, yet cannot say how many are germinating. They apply fertiliser, yet cannot tell if it is cost-effective. By leaving agriculture behind in this wave of data-driven business, the world is abandoning millions of farmers in data poverty, and powerless to compete against their wealthier first-world counterparts.
EcoProMIS Collects Quality Data
In leading the EcoProMIS project, the aim of Agricompas is to make a difference by empowering farmers with the knowledge they need, from sensor to survey to satellite to weather to drone data. But with each additional source of data, the difficulty of pulling them together increases exponentially. I’m the Head of Engineering at Agricompas, and I’m responsible for all the data EcoProMIS gathers. My job is to work out how we pull all this information together, understand it and then provide the information to those that need it.
There are two approaches to tackling a challenge like ours. Firstly, you can manually handle the data, with a team of analysts pushing round files via email, shared folders and collaborative spreadsheets. This does come with the advantage of immediate productivity and visibility. But there’s little certainty over the quality and completeness of data, and no way to be sure what information is where. The second option is to invest time and effort into a fully-fledged platform for data. It must allow the scientists we work with and the farmers that we support to put in and take out the information they need effortlessly.
Advanced Data Platform Prevents Errors
Only recently, the failure of the first, manual approach was highlighted by the loss of the records of 16,000 positive COVID-19 cases by the UK government. Was it a catastrophic server failure? the act of a malicious hacker? The truth was far more mundane. An analyst had opened the spreadsheet holding the list of COVID-19 cases in an old version of Excel, slicing 16,000 rows of data off without ever realising their mistake. Suppose this approach cannot work reliably in the hands of a team as well-staffed as the Public Health England team. How can we trust our own information in a similar system? We owe our growers and our own team better than that.
Over the last six months, the EcoProMIS team has been carefully creating a central platform that can look after farmer data responsibly and safely. A system of databases, redundant servers and security measures means that data doesn’t get forgotten, doesn’t get destroyed and doesn’t get leaked. Over the coming months, we are combining our suite of analytics, models and AI with new apps.
These apps will allow farmers to provide and see their data about their farms and help them make the right agricultural decisions. We already have the first app in early tests, with a knowledge presentation app in the works for release by the new year.
As we evolve our platform and grower apps through close feedback with early users, we will be able to put more power back into the hands of growers, irrespective of their literacy or agricultural experience.
Agricompas and the EcoProMIS project exist to level the playing field and make agriculture fairer for farmers in the most challenging economic, environmental and social settings. I am incredibly proud of what our technical team has achieved to make that happen.