Innovation for agriculture

Published May 17, 2024
The writer, a development and social impact-focused banker and public sector specialist, is president and CEO of The Bank of Punjab
The writer, a development and social impact-focused banker and public sector specialist, is president and CEO of The Bank of Punjab

PAKISTAN’S agricultural sector is not just a segment of the economy; it is the lifeblood that sustains the country’s populace and fuels its economic engine. With over 37 per cent of the labour force employed in it and its contribution of approximately 46pc to GDP — both directly and indirectly estimated by employing backward and forward linkages between agriculture and other sectors of the economy — agriculture’s significance cannot be overstated. It is a pivotal source of foreign exchange earnings, with a substantial delta as high as $15 billion in our current account, underscoring its role as a cornerstone of Pakistan’s financial stability.

Innovation, and out-of-the-box solutions provide hope amidst myriad challenges faced by this sector. These are key to ending the prevailing inertia and catalysts that can transform traditional practices into a modern, efficient, and sustainable agricultural framework. The recent Agri-Connections conference in Lahore served as a testament to this belief, bringing together various stakeholders to sow the seeds of progress and innovation.

The ZarZaraat agri start-up competition, sponsored by The Bank of Punjab and unveiled at the conference, is meant to provide a platform for innovative technologies to showcase their offerings to potential funders to bridge the gap between agricultural start-ups and the capital they require. It is also seen as a commitment to nurturing the growth of agricultural entrepreneurs.

The conference also shone a spotlight on international models of agricultural innovation that can illuminate Pakistan’s path forward. The vision of Pakistani farmers connecting directly with consumers, akin to their Indian counterparts using platforms like BigBasket, is not a distant dream but an achievable reality. Similarly, the success of Hello Tractor in Africa serves as an inspiration for Pakistani agricultural machinery service providers to serve smallholder farmers and help them adopt much-needed mechanised farming using mobile technology, enabling them to book tractors on-demand thus significantly enhancing their productivity.

Out-of-the-box solutions provide hope amidst the myriad challenges faced by the farm sector.

Yet, the scope of innovation extends far beyond the realm of technology. It is important to delve into strategic approaches that have borne fruit in other nations. China’s emphasis on food security, bolstered by government grants and specialised science parks, provides a blueprint for Pakistan to emulate. Ethiopia’s resolution of credit access issues for farmers through a land-titling programme demonstrates the power of governmental intervention in catalysing economic empowerment. Vietnam’s focus on public-private partnerships, my favourite, highlights the importance of collaborative efforts in overcoming financial literacy barriers and collateral constraints faced by rural entrepreneurs. Colombia’s strides in empowering women-owned agricultural businesses via microfinance partnerships offer valuable insights into inclusive economic development.

A call to action for collaboration resonates throughout these success stories. A united front comprising the government, private sector, financial institutions, and agriculturist communities, is imperative for realising the transformative potential of Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Streamlining regulations, investing in rural infrastructure, and championing sustainable practices are the pillars upon which this transformation must be built.

As we study deeper into the agricultural conundrum that Pakistan faces, it becomes increasingly clear that innovation is not merely a luxury but a necessity. The challenges that Pakistani farmers grapple with are unique, but not insurmountable. Agriculture-related platforms emerge as a beacon of hope, offering tangible solutions through the lens of innovation. It is not a little-known fact that agricultural modernisation for an agrarian economy is a sure-fire way of enhancing export orientation. A study by the World Bank suggests that Pakistan can increase its agricultural exports by up to 50pc by 2025 through diversification and improved output quality, brought about by modernisation.

Irrigation and water management are pivotal in a country where poor resource management looms large. The potential to introduce smart irrigation systems could herald a new era of efficiency in water use. A study by the International Water Management Institute estimates that Pakistan can save up to 12.5 million acre feet of water annually by adopting precision agriculture techniques such as smart irrigation systems. Keeping the criticality of it in view, RemoteWell was selected as one of the technologies that could address this challenge, in the ZarZaraat competition.

The issue of post-harvest handling is another hurdle that can be elegantly cleared by short-listing Godaam Technologies as one of the best solutions showcased in the competition. Mobile cold storage solutions and supply chain management platforms are present as low-hanging fruit, boasting the potential to revolutionise the way farmers store and sell their produce — minimising losses and maximising profits. According to recent estimates by the World Bank, Pakistan loses between 30pc to 40pc of its agricultural produce due to poor post-harvest processing and handling. Strategic investments in logistics and storage can cut down on these losses significantly.

Capital access remains the Achilles’ heel for many farmers. Connecting farmers with microfinance institutions and crowdfunding platforms is crucial. It is a step towards democratising access to capital and enabling farmers to invest in the future. While market access is the final piece of the puzzle, digital marketplaces could open up new avenues for farmers, connecting them directly with consumers and ensure a fair price for their hard work. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the widespread adoption of new technologies in developing agrarian economies can potentially increase farm incomes by up to 200pc — effectively translating into poverty reduction from the ground-up as well as improved livelihoods for millions of Pakistani farmers and households.

The roadmap for Pakistan’s agricultural renaissance is etched in the lessons learned from global leaders and the commitment to fostering an environment conducive to innovation. By joining hands and harnessing the collective strength of all stakeholders, Pakistan can unlock the latent potential of its agricultural sector and cultivate a future of prosperity and growth.

The writer, a development and social impact-focused banker and public sector specialist, is president and CEO of The Bank of Punjab.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2024

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