Thrice now on rice: observations from an Intel project in Cambodia

Thrice now on rice: observations from an Intel project in Cambodia

It’s been a major eye-opener, the last week or so. I’ve had the privilege of traveling with an Intel Education Service Corps team across rural Cambodia, as part of a project to improve the fortunes of struggling rice farmers. The 5 team members are all with the Mobile and Communications Group. Earlier in the trip, in “More rice would be nice,” and “Bits, bytes and rice,” I reported on aspects of what the Intel is team doing here, and why. Here are some closing thoughts.

Think there’s zero connection between perspiring Cambodian rice farmer Saphy Pon and Moore’s Law? Think again. I learned—talking with people of extremely modest means in remote areas of rural Cambodia—that the rapid pace of silicon innovation that is Intel’s hallmark has directly touched (or will very soon touch) the lives of people in ways I personally would never have dreamed.

Mr. Pon is typical of Cambodian rice farmers—his annual earnings are measured just in the hundreds, not thousands of dollars every year. I asked Mr. Pon, who until four years ago plowed his paddy with a water buffalo, what his gas-powered plowing machine means to him. He told me that his better rice yield means he can now afford to buy some school supplies for his children. This is his economic world.

So where does Moore’s Law come in? The cost of helping people like Mr. Pon—for example getting accurate farming info to him so he can earn more—is dropping at a dizzying pace. Even if Mr. Pon never himself buys a single shiny Intel-based gadget, that’s beside the point. The local agriculture agents who reach out to farmers—the Intel Education Service Corps team has been helping train these folks in Cambodia—will soon arrive in the field with inexpensive tablets, and software created by engineers partnering across global time zones, and high-speed Internet access and training. All of this is enabled by a tech world whose costs are plummeting, and whose reach therefore is exploding at a pace that Intel’s co-founder sketched out 49 years ago, and that we at Intel pursue to this day. Thank you, Gordon Moore.

 

Intel Education Service Corps team leader Dilek Altin, from Intel Germany, works with two Farm Business Advisors one afternoon in a conference room in a small hotel in rural Takeo, Cambodia. I visited with Dilek about the team’s two weeks in rural Cambodia. The trip, he said, went “much better than I thought.” The Intel team successfully helped deliver eAgro software training to about 100 people—a mix of agriculture agents and farmers who serve as advisors to other farmers. The software will deliver high-quality guidance on topics including seed selection, fertilizer use, and pest control into the hands of farmers in the field. From this very first wave of training, several thousand farmers will benefit.

“Data is really important,” Dilek said. “Information and communications technology is a great opportunity for emerging markets to make a leap forward, and will become much more important for other fields in addition to agriculture,” he told me. Dilek and the other IESC team members were struck by the enthusiasm from rural people who’ve generally not even touched computing devices of any kind before.

The Intel team was certainly not going this project alone, cowboy style. Working nicely with an alphabet soup of other organizations was imperative. The U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is the key financial backer and is on the ground here. A non-profit called iDE supports training and the Farm Business Advisor Program, and worked closely with Intel. The Cambodian government’s Agriculture Ministry sent many of its employees to training sessions. Grameen Intel Social Business (GISB, and an Intel co-funded company) created the eAgro software, and sent two staffers to help with training. A Dutch non-profit called SNV helped with the underlying agronomy data that makes the software smart and coordinated on-the-ground logistics for the Intel team.

Whew. So how’d it all go? I asked Dilek. “All our stakeholders seem happy,” Dilek told me. I was with the team 24/7 for two weeks and I saw the teamwork first-hand. I believed him.

I thought of the old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Currently the weakest link in the efforts to help Cambodian rice farmers is not hardware or software—it’s chemistry, soil chemistry. The agriculture agents and others who are using the Grameen Intel software need to do a soil test—which checks for important stuff like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Carbon, Sulfur, and pH which helps them figure out what fertilizer a farmer will need to spread on his paddy for best yield.

The test is non-trivial. Think multiple test tubes, rubber gloves, careful mixing of reagents, and exact timing. And the field soil test kit itself is a bulky affair, about the size of a box of oranges. For the developing world, someone probably needs to invent an easy-to-use, very low-cost, ideally pocketable device that will test soil without all the off-putting lab gear.