Hacking sustainability for smallholder palm oil farmers

Winners of the first Grow Asia Hackathon in Singapore dreamt up messaging app-based solutions to encourage smallholder palm oil farmers to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices. 

From localised micro-mills and palm tree inspections by drones, to crowdsourcing soil nutrition data—these were a few of the ideas that came out of the first Grow Asia Hackathon in Singapore this week, which sought solutions to make smallholder palm oil farming more sustainable and transparent.

But the idea that won the S$5,000 top prize was for an online messaging app that farmers can use to learn best practices and sustainable farming methods.

Chatbot, the app’s working name, is the brainchild of the three-member Team A. In his three-minute pitch to the Hackathon’s judging panel, team member Adrian Teo said that there was no better person to answer the questions of a smallholder farmer than another smallholder farmer.

To use the app, the farmer enters information about his location and the stage of the farming cycle he is at. Based on that data, the app sends relevant weather information and farming tips through the farmer’s preferred messaging app. This includes Facebook Messenger, LINE, and Blackberry Messenger.

When farmers reply to the app with evidence of implementation, they can get rebates on items such as fertilisers, said Teo, who has 15 years of experience in the tech sector. Tips will come from organisations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), but also from other smallholder palm oil farmers who have been certified for sustainable production.

Smallholder farmers are defined as those who plant on 50 hectares of land or less, according to RSPO. Smallholders represent up to 40 per cent of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations but often have little access to resources to farm sustainably.

The palm oil industry has drawn flak for labour rights abuses and environmentally destructive practices such as slash-and-burn land clearing, which is often blamed on smallholder farmers.

More than 80 people from Singapore and the region participated in the two-day Hackathon organised by Grow Asia, which was established by the World Economic Forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat. As part of the competition, participants interviewed smallholder farmers and agents from the industry to understand the problems faced.

Paul Voutier, digital manager at Grow Asia, told Eco-Business that the organisers chose the palm oil industry to be the focus of the hackathon because it was “an ideal testbed for new digital technologies, given the interest of buyers in tracing the origins of their supply”.

“Once a technology has proven itself in palm oil, it can be scaled to other crops,” he added.

With help from the three other partners at the Hackathon—consumer goods giant Unilever, Japanese bank MUFG, and agribusiness firm Bayer—Grow Asia will work with the winning teams to pilot and scale their ideas, said Voutier.

Another idea that could be developed at scale is an “Uber for fresh fruit bunches”, which clinched second prize. The online platform links transport providers, agents and smallholder farmers to make the process of picking up palm oil fruits quicker and more efficient.

At the same time, the app can collect data on smallholders’ locations and credit history to improve traceability and create credit scores so that farmers can get easier access to micro-loans. 

Toh Hui Ran, a sustainability professional by trade and one of the five-person Simple Aja team behind the idea, said they had realised that later-than-usual harvests due to climate change have disrupted collection schedules and led to inefficiencies. This came to light through their conversation with palm oil agent, Redhahari, who like many Indonesians go by one name. 

She said the group was looking forward to working with the Hackathon’s organisers and even stakeholders in Indonesia to see how to develop the idea further.

Added Toh: “We joked with Pak Redha that we’d use the prize money to visit him if we won. Guess we’re going to Balikpapan!” 

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