Thailand’s model of digital technology for farmers with disabilities

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Rawan Bo-khuntod (l) and another farmer planting seedlings (Image by Pattama Kuentak/IPS)
Nestled in Pathumthaini Province, on the outskirts of Bangkok, 0.24 hectares of land adjacent to Seangsan Temple has become an urban vegetable farm run by members of the Pathumthani Disabled Association.

The Samart Khon Samart Farm consists of a large open greenhouse at the back of the land. In a small grassy field out front are six raised beds of Chinese cabbage (Brassicca rapa chinensis) and cilantro. On one side are the office building and the workshop.

Inside the greenhouse, three rows of raised beds are filled with seedlings of a variety of salad vegetables, still too small to recognize. The ground is covered with rice straw to protect the young plants.

Ten years ago, Khoen Sapanyabut founded the association to highlight the rights to education and employment of people with disabilities.

The land, offered by the temple, is nearly two kilometers from the main road. One side of the tree-lined road is flanked by a canal dotted with low-income homes and community stores. The other side is lined with everything from factories and vacant land to a school.

Once the ground is secured, Khoen, who uses a wheelchair, thinks about what activity the members should focus on. He chose market gardening.

“People with disabilities have different skills. Some are good at computers or fixing appliances. But growing vegetables is something anyone can do, even without proper education,” he says.

The association first embraced hydroponics and grew vegetables like lettuce, water spinach and Chinese cabbage, locally known as bok choy. Although these vegetables are easy to grow and sell, they are cheap and unprofitable.

Also, due to limited space, production could not keep up with demand. The total cost of hydroponics, including electricity, water system and chemical fertilizers, also exceeded the benefits.

The shift to soil-based agriculture happened when the association partnered with Bangkok University three years ago and began receiving annual funding and support, including the greenhouse.

The farm now has 28 raised beds in total. All are designed at a certain height so that farmers in wheelchairs can be accommodated. The aisles are also wheelchair accessible.

Today, the farm grows red and green oak lettuce, kale, romaine lettuce, flying ice, iceberg lettuce, and butter lettuce, all of which are high-value vegetables. All production follows organic farming practices, including the compost, which is made by the members.

Rawan Bo-khuntod, 53, is responsible for the day-to-day paperwork on the farm. He also takes care of the accounts and sometimes helps the farmers to prepare and plant seeds. Rawan says this job has boosted his professional life as a person with a disability because he particularly enjoys administration.

It also made his life healthier. “I used to struggle to eat vegetables. Now I like butter lettuce and usually add it to my salad.” Organic vegetables not only taste better than chemically grown ones, he adds .

Praset Raitim (L) and Khoen Sapanyabut harvest Chinese cabbage. Photo: Pattama Kuentak/IPS

An additional boost came in the form of a partnership between the farm and the government agency for the promotion of the digital economy (Depa).

Rittirong Chutapruttikorn, dean of the faculty of architecture at Bangkok University, who led the design of the greenhouse, says he was looking for ways to make life easier for farmers. He had seen how tending crops and watering while sitting in wheelchairs consumed their time and energy.

One of the first steps after partnering with Depa was installing a digital irrigation system using a mobile phone app. Automatic water sprinklers have been connected with the mist sprinklers. With temperature control, the system provides four minutes of overhead irrigation five times a day.

Prasert Latim, disabled by childhood polio, is one of two people to access the app through his phone. Using the automatic water sprinklers is more convenient because he doesn’t have to watch and water the vegetables all day, he tells IPS. It also prevents the soil from spattering, which can deplete nutrients.

Prasert, 56, says smart irrigation will not only save water but also money, especially as utility costs rise.

The Samart farm is part of the Digital Village Initiative (DVI) project promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which in Thailand operates in collaboration with Depa, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and Kasetsart University.

“Our goal is to find a way to encourage farmers to adopt more digital technologies,” says Witsanu Attavanich, associate professor of economics at Kasetsart University and senior consultant to FAO.

“We can apply the Internet of Things (hands-on digital applications) in planting and harvesting processes. All of this should generate more income for the farmers and the community,” says Witsanu. Its team of professors from the faculties of agriculture and engineering will support farmers in the agricultural and technological fields.

Despite the determination of the members, the farm faces challenges. The first is limited space. In addition, the farm cannot meet market demand due to inconsistencies in production.

Witsanu’s job is to find sustainable business models not only for Samart Farm, but also for two other DVI farms in Nonthaburi and Chumphon provinces.

For Samart Farm, the professor says he plans to work with local government agencies and villagers in nearby communities to increase land, labor and ultimately production to meet demand. Witsanu also plans to implement a long-term business plan with the aim of encouraging more people to join the project.

On the technology side, he says the team will also explore other practical Internet of Things tools to better support farmers and ensure that whatever they adopt keeps up with emerging technology.

Although “the application (which manages the irrigation system) is very advanced”, since it can support air temperature sensors, humidity levels in the air and soil, and the light intensity, Rittirong says “we are not yet where we want to be” because farmers still lack knowledge about vegetable technology, soil, pests and diseases.

The digital irrigation system that waters vegetables. Photo: Pattama Kuentak/IPS

Witsanu says training on agriculture, technology and business will be provided to farmers from Samart Farm and nearby villagers. This information will be compiled into a guide at the end of the project.

Khoen envisions the association becoming a learning center with a small cafe selling healthy drinks and food made from farm vegetables. He hopes to set an example for other associations and surrounding communities.

Although it is still in its infancy, “I am proud (of the farm) because it shows that people with disabilities can grow vegetables like normal farmers,” he says.

A global initiative inspired by FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, DVI is being piloted in the Asia-Pacific region. This village is among many others showcasing and sharing their progress with other villages and regions in Asia and the Pacific, as well as other parts of the world.

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