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Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

Smartphone apps ring changes in Myanmar countryside

Telecoms revolution transforms farmers' access to information and markets

Children of farmers attend a weekly morning class in basic computer skills. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

HTANTABIN, Myanmar -- When disease or insect infestation struck his rice plants in years past, farmer Kyaw Shwe could only guess at causes and remedies. Recently, however, he simply clicked on an app on his smartphone and discovered that his crop was being ravaged by Scirpophaga incertulas, the yellow stem borer. He also found the specific pesticide he needed to kill it.

Kyaw Shwe is among millions of farmers in Myanmar who have benefited from one of the world's most rapid proliferations of mobile phones, and with them, apps that provide once-isolated and impoverished rural communities with everything from weather reports to crop prices at the nearest market -- or even in another continent.

Kyaw Shwe demonstrates how agri-mobile apps have helped in farming his rice fields. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

While they are still being refined and expanded, these agri-mobile apps to boost production and farm income are likely to have wide-ranging impact in Myanmar, where agriculture forms the backbone of the economy, employing more than 60% of the workforce and accounting for nearly 40% of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

Despite their recent launch, the agri-apps have already spread into almost every corner of the country, even to villages lacking mains electricity, where phone users rely on solar power connections for charging. The two most widely used -- Green Way and Golden Paddy -- both came on stream in 2016.

A third key player, the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation, has provided training in the use of these digital tools for about 1,000 government extension workers in the agriculture, livestock, fisheries and rural development sectors, as well as to civil society and journalists. Their knowledge is having a rapid multiplier effect since they are now going on to teach farmers and others at the grassroots level.

Green Way, the most widely used app, was developed over five years by Thein Soe Min, who had earlier worked for a nongovernmental organization in Myanmar's Rakhine State, where farmers often had problems that needed more expert solutions than his team could offer.

Today, his Greenovator start-up, which says it reaches almost every township in the country, has enlisted more than 1,800 local and foreign experts who answer queries posed by farmers. The free platform, providing a wide spectrum of information, also allows interaction with nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and traders.

Two young women take a free basic computer course at a government information center. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

Erwin Sikma, a Dutch national who lives in Myanmar, developed Golden Paddy, an online platform providing services to smallholder farmers though an app, website and Facebook. Sikma said the platform reaches nearly 3 million farmers a month, with about 1,500 registering for the app every week. Users are asked to give their locations, details of the crops they grow and other information to help Impact Terra, Sikma's social enterprise, to customize the service.

"This shows the farmers are connected and engaged, but there is still a long way to go to make the services more useful, so they are empowered to act on the information effectively,'' Sikma said. ''The first signs are very positive.''

Morning class

Younger people often help farmers to use the new sources of information. "The older people may not know much about modern technology, so these days their children tell them about it,'' said Zin Min Htaik, a government trainer, after teaching a morning class on basic computer skills for more than a dozen eager youngsters aged eight to 12, most of them children of farmers. His own toddler spent much of the time adeptly navigating a smartphone.

Children are helping their farming parents navigate the new world of smartphones. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

The government information center where the class took place also serves as a classroom for some of the children's parents, who since mid-2017 have been given instruction in general mobile phone use and an agriculture-focused course in communication for development -- a total of 39 hours of free tuition sponsored by the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation.

Started by a distinguished scholar, Thaw Kaung, and his technically oriented son, Thant Thaw Kaung, MBAPF seeks to spread general knowledge and computer literacy, especially among the disadvantaged. Supporters include UNESCO, the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Two graduates of the courses, both farmers in Htantabin, a rural community 40km northwest of Yangon, dropped by the center that morning, clutching Chinese smartphones each had purchased for about $150.

Kyaw Shwe, who owns extensive rice fields nearby, said checking his smartphone several times a day has yielded multiple benefits -- from the best prices for his rice and agricultural equipment to real time weather forecasts. "If I find there is a storm coming I will stop seeding until it passes,'' he said.

Using Green Way, YouTube, Google search and Facebook, the 57-year-old father of four has also found details of available bank loans, information on pesticides law, and -- perhaps most vital of all -- optimal techniques for the delicate balance between seeds, fertilizers and pesticides that ensures bountiful harvests. Recently, he learned about research at a Myanmar university into a new rice variety that could double summer crop yields.

Myo Han explains how he helps farmers near him use smartphones to better their livelihoods.

The second graduate, Myo Han, said he offers free advice, based on his online research, to neighboring farmers, helping them to boost their incomes by tracking rice prices on the Yangon market. The former civil servant and banana plantation owner said the price of a 49kg bag of nonorganic, high quality rice can vary from $15 to more than $22 in the course of a year. In addition to recommending when farmers should sell or hold back their rice, he also charts labor and transport costs.

Myo Han and other farmers said this information helps them to bargain over prices or sell directly to the market, freeing them from the grip of middlemen, who are frequently regarded as rapacious. ''As farmers become more educated, and if the current trend continues, in another five years we farmers will gain more power,'' said Myo Han, referring to what could prove a transformation of a traditional relationship between buyers and farmers that has invariably favored the former.

Snail raids

The digital tools are also helping farmers to combat natural problems: Myo Han consults Green Way when snails raid his neighbors' crops, and can photograph fungal infections and talk to online experts about how they can be eradicated.

"We don't believe in telling farmers what to do. We give them the information and let them decide, thus empowering them in their work,'' Sikma said.

The rise of the digital farmer has been underpinned by a revolution in communications technology in Myanmar, one of the world's least developed countries. Innovative use of mobile telephones is becoming rooted in rural areas of Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, but has proceeded at breakneck speed in Myanmar, which has the world's fourth fastest growing mobile market, according to Ericsson, a telecommunications equipment supplier.

When the government ended a monopoly on telephone services in 2013, mobile phone penetration stood at less than 10% of the population. Today, almost 90% of people have access, including 32 million farmers -- about 80% of whom use smartphones. As it opened the market, the government insisted that licensed telecoms companies must offer nationwide coverage; cell towers sprouted like mushrooms. Prices have plummeted, with the cheapest mobile phone that can take an agri-app priced at about $45.

No one expects digital technology to whisk away agricultural woes, given decades of disastrous policy by Myanmar's former military regime. Farmers said that data on market prices has limited value to many country people, who are perpetually in debt and must sell at harvest time rather than waiting for higher prices later. Many also lack storage facilities.

But word of mouth, the sometimes-dubious advice of local government officials and often-ineffective traditional practices are being rapidly replaced by the new apps. More sophisticated input, including data on climate change and image recognition software, is on its ways via drones, satellites and other leading-edge technology.

At the government information center, Myo Han, vigorous and active at 71, listened keenly to a visiting Frenchman's reports of European farmers directing tractors with smartphones and selling their wheat with a single click the moment they think the price is right.

"One day all the farmers in Myanmar will learn to use these apps well,'' he said. ''Then we will become like the French.''

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