Satellite data helping Indonesian farmers improve rice harvests

Contributed by Sam Compton, Freelance Journalist

Satellite data is being used to improve food security in Indonesia. The G4INDO IT Platform programme, which started in 2014, supports the Indonesian government’s plan to help farmers improve rice crop harvests.

Specifically, the government has decided on a crop insurance policy to assist farmers, protecting them from losses caused by bad weather and disease. The programme aims to provide a service to 200,000 smallholders.

But how does open data help this worthy initiative?

Aart Schrevel, Project Leader of the G4INDO programme, has the answer:

“Technically it is possible to provide a crop insurance service if you can afford to pay for all the satellite images you’d need. But Indonesia is a huge country; the harvested area is twelve million hectares, often with double cropping. In order to cover the whole season, crops would have to be monitored from planting until harvesting.

That’s a long time and would mean acquiring a series of images from a satellite service and all year round - that’s potentially very expensive. Even if it was costs were subsided it could easily become excessive. The cost would be much too high to offer an insurance product to small farmers. It’s not a viable business case for our crop insurance programme.”

But thanks to open data, the programme offers technical assistance in assessing crop yield anomalies, right down to the size of individual plots. The experts working on the programme can gain access to relevant open data which is processed from satellites, including radar and optical earth observations. This is combined with information from weather monitoring, analyses and forecasting, crop models, and hydrological models.

The next step

Once the G4INDO team have compiled all the relevant data, it is made accessible to the Ministry of Agriculture and participating insurers. This process has proved much cheaper and therefore more sustainable than relying on existing assessment methods used by insurers.

The new process allows participating insurance companies to cost effectively assess claims from insured policyholders on small farms who might be facing harvest losses. This affordable process helps reduce risk against bad weather or harvest failures, giving smallholders the chance to recover from poor growing seasons.

The three year programme is overseen by Alterra, Wageningen University, a Netherlands based organisation that provides independent expertise on sustainable green living. The overall programme, of which G4INDO is a part, is the Geodata for Agriculture and Water (G4AW) and  was conceived by the Netherlands Space Office and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

SarVision and Terrasphere provide expertise in radar and optical remote sensing technology, Deltares provides hydrological information and built the IT platform.The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, NDI provide advice on smallholder insurance systems. Alterra coordinates activities and provides expertise on rural conditions in Java, on hydrology and crop growth modelling, and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) advises on climate change and weather forecasting. They work with Indonesian partners including LAPAN, who provide remote sensing technology and BMKG (meteorological data), along with the Ministry of Agriculture and the insurance company PT Jasindo.

With implementation mid-way, Schrevel already sees the programme’s full potential.

“The insurance companies show great interest in the IT platform. They expect it to be an instrument that can help keep costs low. The platform is useful to assess claims from farmers from behind the computer. It will be less necessary to send loss adjusters to the field to check claims,” he says.

This open data-based approach is therefore saving money and makes the insurance model affordable for the insurance company. The present plan targets smallholders on the island of Java, where rice farmers typically have land holdings of around two hectares or less.  

Small scale farming brings its own problems when attempting to define potential policyholders’ property. G4AW’s programme literature observes, “landownership is highly fragmented and part of the fields are cultivated on a sharecropping basis.”

This complicates matters for normal crop insurance schemes, but this is the nature of small scale farming and the programme is aimed at helping those who cannot afford existing insurance products.

With the help of open data, the development aid phase will end by 2017 allowing the concept to become a fully self-financing model. The objective is to ensure fees collected from individual policyholders will be sufficient to provide enough revenue to cover the cost of running the service.

The initial three-year period provides initial investment in technology and knowledge transfer.  The donor funding is needed, “…to bridge the 3-year gap between the start of the project and the moment that the service will become self-financing. And the service will become self-financing in year 4 after the start of the project,” is the assessment of the G4AW’s programme briefing notes.

Importantly, the programme is designed so that the same style of insurance scheme, built on open data collected from satellites, can be expanded to other regions of Indonesia and will flourish after the termination of support.