Building the high-tech farms of tomorrow

Agritech platform CrowdFarmX uses blockchain to help farmers profit from best practices.

INCORPORATING technology into businesses is often associated with the likes of artificial intelligence and robots.

But that was not what co-founders of agritech platform CrowdFarmX - David Tan and Daniel Wong - had on their minds when they embarked on their journey to reinvent farming through technology five years ago.

Being the first cooperative farming platform on blockchain, CrowdFarmX adopts a people-centric approach to connect farmers in less endowed regions directly to the global market, and equip them with the skills to deliver higher quantity and quality yields.

The lack of access to market information is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the struggles of small stakeholder farmers. And the challenges they face are part of a larger, regional issue.

"We are solving a food crisis that is coming up in the next 30 years," said Mr Tan in an interview with The Business Times.

Food scarcity

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion and demand for food will be 60 per cent higher than it is today, according to estimates by the World Economic Forum.

These trends coupled with a declining number of farmers due to urbanisation point to the issue of food scarcity fast becoming a reality.

Beyond empowering farmers, CrowdFarmX also aims to industrialise high-tech farming to bring more young farmers on board.

"The problem today is that farmers do not know who they are selling to," said Mr Tan. "They sell to a middleman so there are many tiers before the food gets to the market and on the table, giving the farmers lower economic returns for their labour."

Powered by the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technology, CrowdFarmX uses smart contracts to connect farmers directly to wholesale distributors, retailers and end-buyers. This guarantees the farmers a greater cut of the selling price compared to going through a middleman.

And that serves as a two-way street for farmers and consumers. "The consumers become somewhat like direct investors of the farm and in turn, farmers ensure they farm responsibly," said Mr Tan.

Buyers can then get quality produce while farmers earn a consistent income with a stable supply chain.

Besides ensuring farmers have a steady income, profits are also channelled upstream to improve the farming infrastructure through high-tech solutions that were not readily available before.

This includes IoT monitoring systems and data analysis on soil moisture, enabling farmers to maximise yield per square foot of land by up to 10 times, according to CrowdFarmX.

To date, CrowdFarmX has successfully transformed one farm in Chiang Mai in Thailand, and the company is also looking to develop farms in Vietnam and the Philippines.

The transformed farm has created 30 jobs, out of which 70 per cent are held by women, and produced some 10,000 kilograms of pesticide-free vegetables since it became fully operational in April this year.

Looking ahead, CrowdFarmX hopes to take building a sustainable farming community up a notch by implementing QR codes on the packaging of vegetables sold. They currently carry their own own brand, Netafresh, found exclusively in Cold Storage supermarkets in Singapore.

Essentially, scanning the QR codes on a pack of vegetables will allow buyers to see where the vegetables come from, and also put a face on the people behind the scenes, said Mr Wong. CrowdFarmX also brings farmers from around the region to Singapore, for them to work with locals to learn the ropes of running a high-tech farm.

Tinnakorn Sitkongjirang, whose family owns a farming business in Thailand, was the first foreign farmer to work with CrowdFarmX in 2014. He was deployed back to Thailand last year to pass on the knowledge to other farmers. He's currently the chief executive officer of the farm in Thailand. "We took a long time to train the first batch of onboarded farmers because there was a lot we didn't know," said Mr Tan. "But now, we can train farmers in half-a-year."

Optimum solutions

These farmers are given access to CrowdFarmX food cradles, which are physical shared services hubs that provide them with technological and logistical support. It serves as a centre for collaboration to develop new farming procedures.

"These ambassadors are exposed to the most high-tech tools in Singapore, and when we deploy them back to their country, they would implement the most optimum solutions for the farms in their country," said Mr Tan.

As with many businesses, money problems exist. "Financial analysis is crucial. You can deploy the most advanced technology but if it doesn't make money, it doesn't transform any lives and it's not sustainable," said Mr Wong. "We need to adapt accordingly to obtain the best price-performance for each country."

CrowdFarmX plans to impact 60 million farmers by 2050 to become the world's leading decentralised cooperative farming platform.

But solving the global issue of food shortage is an infinite game. "We have big plans but I think we should not lose sight of our vision of transforming farms and people no matter how much the road changes," said Mr Tan.

"Every one of these lives are real. We go down to the farms to meet the farmers and their families in person, and we want to make sure we are truly helping them rather than simply playing the financial game."