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Inside Pakistan’s first "smart village”

June 19, 2024
tags:#climate change, #farming, #internet access, #food security
by:Zain Zaman
A new project is boosting Pakistani farmers' climate resilience with real-time weather forecasts and agricultural knowledge. But just how scalable is this initiative?

In February 2022, farmers in Pakistan's Punjab province faced a critical decision: proceed with pesticide spraying, essential for crop health and market value, or delay it and risk crop damage. Spraying prematurely could lead to losses from unexpected rainfall.

Until a few months ago, farmers relied on traditional methods passed down from their elders, which often failed to predict the changing weather patterns caused by climate change. However, the situation changed when agritech entrepreneurs, in partnership with the US-based NGO Internet Society and Pakistan's leading internet provider, Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd (PTCL), established the country's first smart village.

The "Digital Dera" or "meeting place" initiative provides farmers with free internet access and digital tools to boost yields and access critical information. With high-speed internet at their disposal, the smart village educates small farmers through sessions conducted in the local language, Urdu. As per the organisers, the sessions' overarching aim is to enhance farmers' skills and knowledge in combating climate change.

Relying on Digital Dera's weather forecast, which predicted a 2-degree Celsius temperature drop and rainfall the next day, the farmers decided to delay spraying pesticides. As expected, heavy rains arrived the following day, which validated their decision and protecting their crops from potential harm.

"That day's decision saved farmers millions of rupees," Fouad Riaz Bajwa, Digital Dera’s co-founder and a public policy entrepreneur, told FairPlanet. "Following that incident, they started taking [our] advice more seriously." 

Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 compiled by the thintank Germanwatch. Erratic weather patterns have drastically affected farmers in the country who face lower yields due to floods, smog and heatwaves.

In the summer of 2022, unprecedented monsoon rains submerged a third of Pakistan, displacing millions of people and causing USD 30 billion in damage and economic losses, according to a World Bank estimate.

During the last week of May 2024, parts of Pakistan endured a blistering heat wave that lasted a week, reaching a peak of 53 degrees Celsius on Sunday, 26 May, in Mohenjo Daro, located in the rural Sindh province. 

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Pakistan’s agriculture sector contributes roughly 23 per cent to the country's GDP and employs 37.4 per cent of the national labour force. About 70 per cent of Pakistan’s exports are directly or indirectly derived from agriculture.

"Internet access is not a luxury, but a vital necessity for these communities. It allows farmers to access real-time market information, employ precision agriculture tools and adapt to climate change through weather forecasts," Bajwa said.

"Youth can access e-learning platforms, connect with mentors and explore career opportunities in agriculture, while women can achieve financial inclusion by selling agricultural products made in household value chains and marketed in local markets," he added.

Reliance on old farming techniques

At the community center, now in its second year, a group of young volunteers assists elderly farmers who are unfamiliar with operating laptops and tablets.

"Before [this], we lacked awareness of the optimal timing for crop sowing, the anticipated demand for the crop, the maximum market rate achievable and the appropriate timing for market delivery," said Amjad Ahmad, a farmer in his late 70s who relies on information and methods provided by the community youth volunteers. "We were [also] uncertain about fertiliser costs."

The centre also offers essential training to farmers, facilitated by the government agriculture department and other stakeholders who share their expertise. These sessions focus on implementing new information and techniques and addressing potential risks that crops may face in the future.

Babar Ali is one of the volunteers educating locals.

"The world has moved on, yet we remain reliant on the techniques and methods employed by our forefathers in the 1960s," he told FairPlanet. "In today's modern era, we cannot afford to remain stuck in conventional farming methods." 

Empowering marginalised demographics

In April of this year, Pakistan, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), released its first-ever Digital Development Index report. The report revealed that over half of the country's population lacks internet access due to insufficient digital infrastructure and affordability challenges. In contrast, cities with more advanced digital transformation exhibited higher levels of human development.

Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal said his government was "committed to harnessing the benefits of technological innovation to improve livelihood prospects, accelerate financial inclusion, improve employment and deliver efficient public services." 

The UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Kanni Wignaraja, said that "targeted digital transformation efforts for this growing middle class could greatly improve the country's productivity." 

The report also highlighted that a staggering 83.5 per cent of women in the country reported that their spouse or parents dictate their phone ownership.

At the rural centre, however, Bajwa noted that women were among the frequent visitors, utilising the internet not only to sell agricultural household value chains but also to access information for university admissions and other purposes.

Is scaling viable?

After two years, Bajwa now aims to expand the initiative across Pakistan's agricultural regions, with plans to open 200 digital centres. This expansion would require a whopping USD 40 million. Currently, around 2,000 farmers are benefiting from the project.

"The provision of internet facilities and tech-based agriculture advice marks a significant step forward in an area that, while fertile, remains underdeveloped despite being situated in the country's most prosperous province," environment law expert and activist Osama Malik told FairPlanet.

"The government should offer full support to such private sector initiatives and students from agriculture and IT universities across the province should visit this hub as a part of their field research," Malik added.

Bajwa emphasised his group's vision for direct investment in farming, especially in regenerative agriculture, as essential. They strongly oppose stubble burning and tillage practices, advocating for sustainable methods instead. However, there is a significant investment deficiency in climate-resilient farming.

"I still hold onto the dream of a future where more investment is directed towards climate-resilient farming," he said.

Image by Aamer Hayat Bhandara.

Article written by:
Zain Gul
Zain Zaman
An aerial view of the community hall.
© Aamer Hayat Bhandara
An aerial view of the community hall.
Volunteers operating laptops at Digital Dera Centre\'s community hall.
© Aamer Hayat Bhandara
Volunteers operating laptops at Digital Dera Centre's community hall.
Local women using the internet at Digital Dera’s community hall.
© Aamer Hayat Bhandara
Local women using the internet at Digital Dera’s community hall.
Aamer Hayat Bhandara, co-founder of Digital Dera, briefing local farmers during a training session at the centre.
© Digital Dera
Aamer Hayat Bhandara, co-founder of Digital Dera, briefing local farmers during a training session at the centre.
A view of Digital Dera centre in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
© Aamer Hayat Bhandara
A view of Digital Dera centre in Pakistan’s Punjab province.