Agri-tech start-ups reinventing farms to boost Indonesia’s agriculture sector

A chicken farm in Indonesia with sensors from agritech firm Pitik installed. - The Straits Times/ANN

JAKARTA, April 2 (The Straits Times/ANN): Mr Arief Witjaksono started a chicken farm in 2018 with some partners in the city of Tangerang, west of Jakarta, but left after two years because the business was not profitable due to the low efficiency of the farm.

Now, the 38-year-old runs a start-up that helps farmers supply up to five million chickens across Indonesia each month.

His company, Pitik, developed technological solutions that not only make the rearing of chickens easier, but also better the lives of farmers.

“I realised how traditional and backwards the industry was back then,” he told The Straits Times.

He was surprised that people still used an old-fashioned scale to weigh chickens when deciding if they were of the right size for sale, and that some farmers used live-feed cameras not to monitor the birds, but to look at the digital thermometer in the coops to ensure that the living conditions were suited to their growth.

In contrast, Mr Arief and his team use modern technology to study the animals in real time and enable farmers to better manage their conditions so that the rearing process is more efficient.

With the help of the start-up, farmers use an Internet-of-things sensor that measures data such as temperature and humidity in the coop, and a Pitik-developed app that monitors and controls the conditions in the coop so that an optimum production can be achieved.

Pitik is one of several Indonesian firms that have sprouted in recent years to seize potential opportunities in the archipelago’s agriculture industry.

According to the World Bank, agriculture, forestry and fishing have consistently contributed a significant part of Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP). In 2019, these sectors formed 12.7 per cent of GDP, and latest figures show that in 2021, they accounted for 13.3 per cent of GDP at US$157.5 billion (S$209 billion).

But despite this, young people are not attracted to working in the field. According to the National Development Planning Agency of Indonesia (Bappenas), the proportion of Indonesian workers in the agricultural sector has decreased significantly, from more than 65 per cent in 1976 to only 28 per cent in 2019.

Bappenas has even made a bleak prediction – that by 2063, the Indonesian farmer will disappear as a profession, thereby plunging the archipelago into a food crisis.

Firms like Pitik, however, are determined to not let that happen.

In less than two years since it became operational, the start-up has partnered with more than 600 farmers to rear chickens. Pitik provides most of the initial tools for free to these farmers, and also helps them sell and distribute the poultry.

“Agri-tech is the backbone of our daily lives. It’s the food that we eat every day, and with the rising population of the world, that is even more reason that we need to use technology to improve agriculture,” said Mr Arief.

Aquaculture start-up Jala is also on a mission to increase the efficiency of the shrimp farmers it works with. The company, which launched its services in 2019, uses technology to monitor environmental conditions and feeding data, which farmers can then adjust to maximise their yield.

Its chief executive, Ms Liris Maduningtyas, 31, told ST that in the four years since the launch, more than 16,000 farmers have used Jala’s monitoring platform. The firm currently takes care of the environmental conditions for about 12,000 tonnes of shrimp.

“For 20 years, we realised we had not seen any improvement in terms of technology in shrimp farming, while in all other industries there were technological advancements,” she said.

“So we spent years researching and doing product development to solve this.”

Youths staying away

The big challenge lies in getting young people interested in the agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors.

Only 23 per cent of Indonesia’s 14.2 million people aged between 15 and 24 worked in these sectors in 2019, based on the most recent available data from the National Labour Force Survey.

Although the government will make sure there is enough food produced locally and the farming profession will not disappear, young people are still staying away, noted Dr Maria Monica Wihardja, a visiting fellow from the Indonesia studies programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

“It could be a very attractive sector, especially since the sector has a high national importance. However, there are many factors that could make the sector look unattractive,” she said.

Such factors include an unsupportive financial ecosystem, and the impression that it is a risky business with relatively little returns.

“The agriculture sector is a more regulated market compared with other economic sectors because food security is a national security. A more regulated market, where international trade, market prices and input prices are regulated, may give less incentive for farmers to innovate and the sector becomes less dynamic and hence, unattractive for young people,” she said.

Mr Andrew Soeherman, the 36-year-old chief executive of digital farming solutions provider Eratani, said that the idea of working in the business of growing food might not seem popular with young people due to the conditions that they might have to face, like working outdoors in the sun.

But Mr Soeherman, whose firm regularly meets the farmers it works with, believes that the work is worth it.

Started in 2021, the company now works with more than 10,000 rice farmers to increase their crop yield by providing them with a set of sensors to monitor their productivity as well as solutions to better finance their business and distribute their product.

“People are happier to work in cafes or offices, sure. But when you already decided to serve this mission and go after its opportunities, what feels hard initially will not feel hard once it pays off,” he said.

When it comes to technological solutions in agriculture, Dr Wihardja said that the key is to downscale and make it easy for farmers to use them, something which the entrepreneurs agree with.

All the companies ST spoke to said that they still go on the ground regularly to educate their partners.

“Understanding the farmers’ pain points and finding out the real problems is key. You need to talk to the farmers and go to the real farms, not just once or twice but many times. The more you understand your industry and solve the problems, the more you will draw people to it,” said Ms Maduningtyas.

Some might see this as hard work, but these entrepreneurs say that their efforts pay off when they see the farmers improving their lives and becoming even more productive with their farms.

“How are we going to feed seven, eight billion people in the world if we don’t improve our technology, improve our chicken production, our rice production?,” said Mr Arief.

“And going to the ground, meeting all these people, that’s when you get to feel the sense of it... we’re really hoping to make a change in the lives of these people, and the food we put on our table.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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Singapore , Agriculture , New Agri Tech


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