How does reinventing the wheel help smallholder farmers gain access to years of valuable open source data that helps improve to crop yields? An ingenious cardboard wheel has been invented that transfers digitally relevant data into a simple but effective format. It cost effectively puts critical agricultural information into the hands of Thailand’s rice farmers to increase their incomes.
While there is a wealth of data available for Thai agricultural researchers or large scale farmers who have access to computers, until recently it has not been presented in a readily accessible format that could help smallholders improve their farming techniques.
Step forward the designers of the cardboard rice wheel. They are based at the Hia Chai Rice Seed Centre and have designed the wheel specifically for farmers or cooperative members, the main producers of rice in Thailand. It gives them the chance to quickly and easily plan how they grow rice as many cannot afford the cost of a smartphone or computer.
The objective of the rice wheel, according to the design team is to effectively harness open data in a usable way and present it in a format that suits small scale growers.
Getting the rice harvest right is so important in a country where the crop is one of the main foods and source of nutrition. Rice is also an important export earner for Thailand, a staple diet for a large proportion of the world’s population, especially in Asia. With farmers using the rice wheel, the team estimate that with precision and care, the yield of rice can increase by at least 10%, optimizing costs by supporting better crop management.
The rice wheel is a practical way to transfer knowledge contained in open data on a range of subjects, including weather, cultivation and harvesting. The wheel is made-up of a circular base and three colourful moving parts, each providing a section that runs concentric to the base. It presents easy to understand instructions, gleaned from years of detailed data.
Each of the three moving parts corresponds to a growing method for the main rice varieties and contains instructions linked to important horticultural data essential for the grower to understand. For example, the wheel’s colour coding lets farmers know the best time of year to harvest.
In Thailand, there are more than 200 varieties of rice and so optimizing harvests can be a complex matter.
As the academic behind the planning and testing of the wheel, Professor Asanee Kawtrakul explains, “each variety has different properties in adapting to the environment.” And these differences needs to be understood and planned for by each smallholder. The rice wheel has been in use since early 2013 with remarkable results contributing to improved rice farming in the central region of Thailand. However Professor Kawtrakul admits the cardboard wheel has drawbacks.
“First, it is difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate changes in its structure. For example, if a rice variety is abandoned or a new variety appears in the world of rice farming, the only way to include the change in the query process is to reconstruct the physical wheel. Similarly, if the wheel is to be used in a different region of Thailand, or another part of the world, where weather conditions and water supplies are of a different nature, then again, the only way to include the change in the query process is to reconstruct the wheel,” she says.
Professor Kawtrakul also explains that the kind of queries the physical wheel can handle are simple and limited to planting or harvesting dates. This means questions about planning rice farming cannot be answered using the cardboard wheel alone.
However, the team from the Hia-Chai Rice Seed Centre are finding ways to get over the limitations of the card and are working on an app that can be accessed by mobile phone. This is important as mobile phone subscription has reached 144 for every 100 citizens (a) and in a country of more than 67 million people, so a good way to present even more open data sourced crop information. But it will need to be presented in an easy to follow format, gaining inspiration from the effective graphic style of the rice wheel.
So, the design of a digital version that brings added advantages is on-going. With this, farmers will have greater levels of crop advice as the online wheel can present greater detail as it trawls through the open data on rice growing in the central region of Thailand, compiled over the last two decades.
With much of Thailand’s rural population employed in rice farming the Thai government has also launched a large scale programme aimed at helping low income farmers and supporting the use of the rice wheel and digital wheel. The objective is to encourage farmers to think collectively, for example, to agree similar growing periods in order to reduce costs, and hire harvesting machines together.
The goal is to help small scale rice growers gain strength in numbers and build their profit margins. However, Professor Kawtrakul sees a major issue with the roll out of the soft wheel to rice growers across Thailand. “This will require a transition from traditional farming to IT supported farming.
Indeed, the deployment of the soft wheel in rice farming cooperatives over the whole country will require the training of cooperative members to the use of soft wheel on software devices such as PCs, tablets or mobile phones,” she says.
To prepare for this modernisation, training is being prepared by the Hia-Chai Rice Seed Centre at its Smart Practice Learning Centre for Farmers. It will introduce rice growers to the soft wheel app. “We plan to extend rice variety knowledge and the ecosystem of each region. With more data, the soft wheel can be utilized effectively”, says Professor Kawtrakul.
Over a short period of time Thailand’s rice growers will graduate from the reliable but limited printed wheel to the digital wheel, where they will gain greater access to extensive levels of rice growing advice.