I have been working on the idea of creating a network connecting farmers and academics. The reason for that is twofold:
- I had the idea to build an app that farmers could use for a lot of useful applications, but I realised it couldn’t work
- There is a huge gap between academia and practice in agriculture, which makes innovation and knowledge transfer slow
Those of you who’ve read any of the content on the IUPAC N-GAGE program might remember that my initial idea to innovate crop protection involved the development of a smartphone application that Flemish farmers could use to improve their crop management. I started doing research and digging into the possibilities, but quickly realized there have been many attempts at creating apps for agriculture. Most of these apps seem quite useful, but relatively few farmers are using them. Why? Because innovation in our sector is slow.
Why innovation is slow: The reason that innovation in Flanders is slow is threefold:
- We have split our knowledge and research centres in different institutes
- We have a large number of small farms rather than a few number of big players
- Farming is an occupation with a generation gap: relatively old, traditional farmers and young entrepreneurs
The first problem is something typically Belgian, as far as I can tell. We like to divide our small speck of a country in as many parts as possible. We for example have 6 governments divided over 10 provinces with 3 different languages, all of which are semi-autonomous for many practical purposes. For only 11 million people, that’s quite a lot of division. It’s in our blood to try and place everything into subcategories. That is why we have testing centres specialised in fruits, vegetables, other vegetables, potatoes, horticulture, you name it, we probably have a testing centre. We also have at least 8 universities, and several independent research organisations and agricultural interest organisations with their own newsletters. Each of these institutions has their own ways of developing new technology, and of spreading knowledge with others, which makes it hard for anyone to keep track of.
The second problem is of a practical sort. We have around 35000 farmers in Belgium, organised mostly in smaller farms. If you want to convince them to use new technology, you will have to convince them all, individually. The way this is done now is by organising conventions, or by inviting farmers to demonstration events. In this case, you’re lucky to reach a few hundred farmers at once, making it a slow process. Additionally, you have to convince those farmers right then and there that your innovation works. There are less mega-farms here in Belgium that can easily make the investment to try a new piece of technology. Small farms have a smaller budget, and a smaller area of land for which the new piece of technology is useful. This, combined with the fact that there are many older farmers with less affinity for digital solutions, makes it very hard to convince them.
What are we going to do about it?
The solution lies in gathering innovative, entrepreneurial farmers. This is the first step towards modernising our agricultural sector. We need to build a network that gathers these innovative farmers and allows them to work closely together with the academic sector to test and develop new technology. Researchers gain valuable real-life feedback, innovative farmers get to test the latest technology, and later on other farmers have proof that this new technology works. For this last purpose, we are trying to develop a peer-to-peer knowledge exchange platform, that lets these innovative farmers share their experience with the rest of the sector. I now finally have a clear vision on why my initial idea could not work, and on how to proceed during the next months of my project.
Simon Appeltans, N-GAGE Champion