Innovative Thai start-ups are pushing technology to add value in agriculture and raise incomes
Saraburi, a verdant central Thai province north of the capital, Bangkok, is known for spectacles like fields of sunflowers spreading beneath hills, and dragon fruit piled high like rubies at roadside stalls. But lest one think of the region’s farms as picturesque and primitive, changing agricultural practices are worth a closer look.
Buppha, one farmer from the province, is among many using the latest technology to improve their livelihoods. In the past, if there was a problem with her crop, she might have to wait until harvest time revealed a substandard yield. But today, she can use a colour-coded dashboard to identify problems and take pre-emptive action.
Aukrit Unahalekhaka, chief executive of Ricult, the social enterprise that set up Buppha’s dashboard, notes that for such farmers, “Wrong decisions can mean no income for their family for the whole year.” Around 30% of Thai employment is in agriculture, encompassing close to 15m people. “Unfortunately, they are among the poorest in the country,” he says.
This can be because farming without the right tools leads to low productivity. Ricult is aiming to lift incomes by using machine learning and satellite imagery to help agricultural households in Thailand and Pakistan. “Rather than relying on luck and praying for rain, we provide data-driven recommendations and insights to farmers to make the best possible farming decision,” says Mr Unahalekhaka.
Chief Executive, Ricult
In pursuing the mission to foster equality, raise incomes and promote self-reliance, Ricult and similar companies are aligned with the Thai government’s vision of Thailand 4.0, where the economy will shift beyond previous phases dominated by agriculture, light industry and then heavy industry. According to the plan, Thailand will move towards being a high-income and more equal country by fostering innovative, value-based industries. One milestone on this journey is a goal to develop 20,000 households as “smart farmers”.
Ricult’s efforts alone have already exceeded this goal, having had an impact on over 100,000 farmers in Thailand. And it is far from the only player in the field. Another Thai business developing smart farms is Moscii Corporation, which explicitly commits itself to helping Thailand become a developed economy. “We are using our IT and engineering knowledge and resources … to demonstrate the simple way to implement a low-cost smart farm that utilizes the local technology and materials in a limited land area,” says Robert Klein, Moscii’s business development director. The company also aims “to develop low-investment , easy-to-use IoT devices, a smart farm platform and mobile application for Thai farmers”.
Business Developement Director, Moscii
Moscii’s StarCat Wise Farm system enables farmers, including city-dwellers with spare yard or roof space, to grow organic fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. Management of watering, fertiliser and climate is automated, removing the need for toxic chemicals and opening farming to those who would otherwise lack the time.
The company’s focus on urban farming has a strong personal dimension. “Thai people’s health has … been affected by the wide usage of pesticides,” says Mr Klein. “So we decided to use our knowledge and efforts to find the most suited solutions for the Thai people to improve their way to do farming.”
Mr Unahalekhaka of Ricult acknowledges the importance of government support in enabling solutions like these to gain traction. “We have received some grants and awards from various ministries in Thailand,” he says, which “has helped us with PR and networking opportunities”. The Thailand Board of Investment has also assisted by providing tax benefits and helping to facilitate visas and work permits where necessary. Such support, along with assistance in setting up a business, is also available to other organisations involved in modern agricultural products and services, in areas including systems for detection and tracking, resource regulation and smart greenhouses. This will help add value in agriculture and boost farmers’ incomes through the implementation of technology.
The Thailand Board of Investment supports the development of industry in Thailand through a range of programmes and incentives open to local businesses and foreign investors. To learn more and make contact, visit www.boi.go.th.