Thai Farmers' Digital Literacy: Current State and Policy Implications

Thai Farmers' Digital Literacy: Current State and Policy Implications

Published: 2022.08.03
Accepted: 2022.07.27
11
National Agricultural Big Data Center, Office of Agricultural Economics, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand
National Agricultural Big Data Center, Office of Agricultural Economics, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand
National Agricultural Big Data Center, Office of Agricultural Economics, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Thailand

ABSTRACT

This study aims to mainly review the approaches, current state, and policies on Thai farmers' digital literacy, under the challenges in many aspects of farmers' digital literacy who operate on a small scale and lack skills and resources, and are facing aging and less educated in comparison to labors of other sectors. These challenges lead to the concerns on the technological readiness of farmers to apply technologies and innovations in their farms accurately and properly to increase productivity and reduce costs in the long term. Thus, to enhance the digital literacy of Thai agricultural labors, this paper draws policy implementations from our analysis of the National Statistical Office of Thailand called the NSO ICT Survey from 2018 to 2020. The government should focus on enhancing basic digital skills for farmers using digital technologies to suit their needs by using three types of smart farmers which consist of smart farmers, smart farmers- prototype and young smart farmers throughout the country. Since these smart farmers have digital skills or knowledge qualifications, they have a strong network for contributing the knowledge and the lesson to other ordinary farms. Moreover, digital services should prioritize mobile applications rather than web applications for maximum coverage since most farmers use mobile phones and only a few use computers. Finally, motivating farmers to improve digital knowledge is also needed.

Keywords: digital literacy, digital service, ICT devices, Internet of Things (IoT)

INTRODUCTION

Thailand's agricultural sector is now facing the issue of labor scarcity, more than half of farmer households are aging workers and with low educated level who have limited access to new knowledge and technology. Additionally, most farmers are smallholder farmers, resulting in a lack of scale economics to access resources and technology and a lack of bargaining power (Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, 2017). As farmers are aging and less educated comparing with other sectors, resulting in the concerns on their technological readiness to apply technologies and innovations in their farms accurately and properly to increase productivity and reduce costs in the long term (Kwanmuang, K. et al.,2020). Furthermore, climate change and higher global competitiveness cause farmers to have low productivity and profitability and need to rely on government support. However, studies and cases from many countries showed that technology and innovation are key determinants of increasing farmers' productivity and competitiveness (Attavanich, W. et al., 2019, Adebayo, S. et al., 2018, Kernecker, M. et al., 2020, Emerick, K., et al., 2016, Mironkina, A., et al., 2020). Therefore, encouraging farmers to adopt information and knowledge in decision-making for crop cultivation, using inputs such as high-quality varieties, innovation to improve the production process, and modern machinery and technology will help increase productivity and product quality per labor and limited area.

Digital technology is a crucial driver that helps farmers adopt technology on farms. It is found that digital technology tended to help develop technology that matched farmers' needs. Technology revolution, which can create, store, link, and process data and information at the farm level timely and precisely, together with the improvement of data analysis, will help to understand the problems and needs of farmers and help to choose suitable technology and design farming approach which is personalized to farmers and income level.

Digital technology can improve the efficiency of technology transfer to farmers via platform or application to disseminate knowledge and technology with low-cost and quick service. Moreover, digital technology can help create two-way communication, giving farmers opportunities to inquire, give feedback, or give information. This is also a learning channel to share learning material and knowledge via videos that are easily understood, social media that farmers can access, or games that will attract and encourage farmers to use such applications. Moreover, a platform can help develop sharing economy in various aspects. For example, using a community area in the village as a common area for tenants and machinery rentals to meet each other will help decrease costs for accessing modern machinery for smallholder farmers.

In developed countries, digital technology has become increasingly integrated into agriculture. At the same time, in the academic sector, economists are more interested in studying and experimenting with applying digital technology for passing technology and innovation to smallholder farmers by using the concept of Netflix for agriculture developed by Michael Kremer [1]. This concept uses digital technology in agriculture, which is similar to the movie platform called 'Netflix' that analyzes data and personal behavior of users to increase the precision of their services and attract more users. The more data they can get, the more accurate technology development can improve and benefit users.

Digital technology in the agricultural sector can change farmers to become users and participants to help input data and build creative technology and innovation that is beneficial to farmers themselves and other farmers in the society. This, at the same time, can expand the development of technology and innovation, which has good quality and is suitable for farmers indeed.

Applications of digital technology in agriculture

Digital technology consists of six categories that have the potential to improve agricultural levels as follows (Chantarat, S. et al., 2019):

  1. Technology for collecting data includes short-range data collection from sensors used to measure soil health and other values of substances in the field. In addition, medium-range data collection from drone cameras and long-range data collection via satellite images can identify planting conditions, type of crops, growth stage, and problems at the farmers' field level.
  2. Big Data that can show details of topography, weather conditions, and farming in the field level both at present and from the past for all areas in the countries will help understand the various issues and needs of farmers.
  3. Internet of Things (IoT) that can link agricultural tools and machinery together via the Internet or mobile networks will help give an order to agricultural activity on the farm such as watering, applying fertilizer inputs according to specific time and quantity precisely without using human and can monitor conditions and find solutions to problems in the filed more quickly.
  4. Mobile technology will help link farmers to the market, input providers, consumers, government officers, and farmers themselves. This will help farmers to create and get access to information and knowledge at an easy, quick, and lower cost way such as prices of crops, weather forecasts, and solutions for plant diseases
  5. Data analysis using data analytics such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) combined with big data in various aspects will help find proper, precise, and effective agricultural approaches for each farming area and each farmer, called precision farming.
  6. Platform can connect data from service providers to users or farmers and match each user together, such as farmers and consumers, input providers, government agricultural experts, or farmers. This can promote sharing economy in different forms through the Internet and mobile technology.

Digital literacy in Agriculture

Digital literacy is the ability to use tools and digital technologies nowadays, such as computers, mobile phones, tablets, computer software, and online media for applying in communication, operation, and cooperation or using for improving the working process or workflow in the organization to become modern and efficient (Anuttarakun, S.,2021). These abilities cover four aspects: The ability to use, the ability to understand, the ability to create, and access digital technology efficiently. 

Digital literacy, or the ability to understand and use digital technology, is the fundamental digital skill that is an essential tool for working, communicating, and cooperating with others in terms of working less but getting more impact. This also helps create Value Co-creation and economy of scale to become Thailand 4.0 (Office of the Civil Service Commission)

In the agricultural sector, the young farmers tend to use the internet as a mean of digital literacy and to search for information such as weather forecasts, crop planning, and decreasing risks from cultivation. Find techniques or methods for product development to create value-added for their products, and learn to manage production costs efficiently, such as installing an automatic water drain for saving labor costs and time for farmers, using drones to explore the area for crop planning in order to maximize production with the constraint of the planted area, etc. Moreover, the Internet increases the marketing channel to sell agricultural products through online channels and reduces the dependency on middlemen as in the past. This shows that the Internet can improve agricultural efficiency in almost all steps from pre-planting to marketing channels for selling products, decreasing production costs, and increasing production, income, and profit. Therefore, farmers who can access the Internet will have a more competitive advantage in doing business and help improve their livelihood. This corresponds to the data collected by the National Statistical Office, which found that farmers who use the Internet will have a higher income than those who do not. The average income of farmers who use the Internet is approximately US$[2]289.6 per month, while those who do not use the Internet averagely get US$241.9 per month (Charoenpanich, A., 2021).

THE STATUS OF DIGITAL LITERACY IN THE THAI AGRICULTURAL SECTOR

We use microdata from the Household Survey on the Use of Information and Communication Technology​​ from 2018 to 2020 conducted by the National Statistical Office of Thailand (NSO), called the NSO ICT Survey (National Statistical Office, 2022). This survey has many desirable properties (Sawaengsuksant, 2021). First, the survey provides rich details for further breakdown by age, education level, and occupation. Second, the survey questionnaire aligns with the international survey i.e. the European Union survey on the use of ICT in households and individuals (Eurostat, 2022a). For the purpose of clarity, we use the term digital technology and information and communication technology (ICT) interchangeably. ICT means a set of technological tools and resources applied to transmit, store, create, share or exchange information including computers, the internet, live broadcasting technologies, recorded broadcasting and telephony (UNESCO, 2022).

Our focuses are: 1) to compare digital access and skill between individuals in the agricultural sector and those in other sectors; and 2) to investigate the possible factors causing the disparities. Measurement of digital access is straightforward by the number of individuals who use mobile phones, the Internet, or computer (desktop, laptop, and tablet). Digital skills are computed based on digital skill indicators, which are a proxy for the digital literacy of individuals (Eurostat 2022b). Due to the high complexity of ICT-related activities, the digital skill indicators are measured in four domains: information, communication, problem-solving, and software skills. Each digital dimension has three levels which are "no skills," "basic," or "above basic." The overall digital skill is computed based on four areas and the individual digital skill is categorized into four levels which are "no skill," "low," "basic," or "above basic.". Please see the appendix for detail explanation.

It is found that laborers in the agricultural sector account for about 33% of the total employed labor force (Table 1). Moreover, Thai agricultural labor forces are older and less educated than laborers in other sectors (Table 2 and Table 3). Specifically, in 2020, the share of agricultural labors aged 60 years old or older is 23.6%, whereas the industrial and service sector has only 6.4% and 8.2%, respectively. Furthermore, at the education level, 68% of laborers in the agricultural sector have primary education or less, while the shares are much lower in the industrial and service sectors, respectively.

Most individuals have access to ICT devices. The majority of individual uses the mobile phone (98.4%), whereas the usage of computer is relatively low (20.1%) (Table 4). Despite the high rate of ICT access, internet access is lower (82.6%), and there is still room for improvement. Now, let us discuss ICT access to the agriculture sector. Thai labors engaged in agricultural activities have lower access to ICT devices (96.8% for mobile phones and 2.0% for computers) and internet access (64.4%). There are a couple of interesting observations to note. First, over 9 out of 10 agricultural labors have access to mobile phones. This number is slightly lower than other sectors, but it is still very high. The second observation is that internet access has increased since 2018. The share of agricultural workers who has internet access was 34.4% in 2018, and the number has grown to 64.4% in 2020. However, internet access in the agriculture sector is still lower compared to the industrial sector (89.9%) and the service sector (99.2%). The second observation is that agricultural labor has shallow access to computers device at 2.0%. These observations are expected as older and less educated individuals tend to have a lower level of digital literacy (Schreurs et al., 2017).

The status of digital skills or digital literacy of individuals in all sectors has improved since 2018 (Table 5). The share of no digital skills reduced from 36.1% in 2018 to 17.4%. Although the digital skill level has been improved, most laborers are still at a low digital skill, accounting for 64.3%. Digital skill in the agricultural sector also follows the country trend where the share of no digital skills reduced from 65.6% to 35.6%. However, there is a considerable lack of digital skills in agricultural labor as only 1.5% of them has basic or above essential digital skill.

SUGGESTIONS OF POLICY IMPLICATIONS

From the analysis of digital literacy above, we underline that Thai agricultural labor forces are older and less educated than laborers in other sectors. Policy implications are as follows:

First, most farmers use mobile phone devices and only a few uses computer. Therefore, digital agricultural services should prioritize mobile applications. Mobile applications could have greater functionality because they can access device’s hardware i.e. camera, GPS, sensors which could be used in precision agriculture. However, the mobile applications are needed to be installed, might not be compatible with all devices and operation systems, and difficult to develop, publish, and maintain (Gupta 2020). Web application requires only internet access and a browser. Hence, web applications can be utilized by many devices ranging from mobile phones to desktop computers. Web applications still play an important role, but they need to be responsive (adaptive to the size of device screen) and interactive for better user experience. Second, the Internet is required for digital agriculture. The level of internet access has been improved recently, but there is still room for improvement. Third, there is substantial progress in digital literacy promotion, but the level is still low, especially in the farming sector. Fourth, it is irrational to expect farmers to become software engineers, so the government should focus on enhancing basic digital skills for farmers who can use digital technologies to suit their needs. At the same time, the government must increase the number of ICT developers and build a thriving ecosystem ranging from laws and regulations to infrastructure. As a result, ICT companies/start-ups can emerge and offer digital services to farmers. 

Moreover, as a suggestion of digital service should put priority on the mobile application, thus further suggestions to consider whether use the Internet or not for mobile application, it should have short- and long-term plans to encourage farmers as the following:

Short-term plan should focus on encouraging farmers who already have digital knowledge to use an application, such as searching for an influencer to show and explain the advantages of using a mobile application—or supporting lead farmers in the community to use the application and share experience how information can help farmers improve production efficiency and increase farmer income.

Long-term plan is to deal with farmers who have limited knowledge of digital technology. The government needs to support these farmers to gain digital knowledge before encouraging them to use relevant applications. However, when using the applications, it also depends on their abilities and confidence to use the applications because if farmers do not have any digital knowledge, they may be afraid and do not dare to use it. Therefore, the government should motivate farmers to open their minds and adjust themselves to adopt digital technology by providing knowledge and showing how digital technology can benefit and improve their lives, such as decreasing risks from crop cultivation, increasing production and income, etc.

Apart from motivating farmers to improve their digital knowledge, the government still has to face other challenges such as designing an attractive and easy-to-use and providing beneficial information to farmers and covers from pre-planting to market linkage for sale channels. Building confidence for farmers to use the applications, especially the issue of security of personal information, including preparation of infrastructure both internet coverage and cooperation with telecom operators to promote a campaign that offers an inexpensive monthly fee of internet service so that farmers can quickly access the applications.

However, the issue that most farmers or labor are old and less educated on Thai farms is still a big deal. Thus, in practice, the government should support farms or farmers with the high and top capability to work as trainers and build the network to expand the digital literacy skills as a priority. Training by extension officers, local intellectuals or successful farmers, are common routine of dissemination the digital knowledge in order to enhance farmers digital literacy.

However, digital literacy needs skill or digital knowledge qualification. In Thailand, there are three types of smart farmers who must have technology skill as qualification and can distribute the digital skill to ordinary farms.  Three types of smart farmers and their meaning are described as follow (details showed in Table 6 in appendix):

First, "Smart Farmer" or Agricultural Operator with the use of technology and management for modern agricultural business, having strong and self-reliant.

Second, "Smart Farmer -prototype" or Farmers, agricultural operators using technology and management for modern agricultural business. Having strong and self-reliant, they passed all six leading indicators and 15 sub-indicators.

Third, "Young Smart Farmer" or the new generation of farmers under 40 years of age who have been assessed as a "Young Smart Farmer." He/she has the ability to farming management with modern technology. Creativity and innovation in the form of new agricultural entrepreneurs, self-reliant. Moreover, there is a network connection, and he/she is a farm leader in the community.

Since these three types of farmers that they have or require important ability to access data sources and utilize the data/ information for managing the farm, in other word they have ability of digital knowledge.  These smart farmers also have skill of trainer and can transfer the knowledge as well as a strong network for contributing knowledge and lesson to other farms throughout the country. Therefore, contributing digital knowledge by these types of farmers need to be supported.

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[1] he got Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, in 2019, in term of providing develop innovative experimental approaches to alleviating poverty around the world.

 

[2] 1 US$ = 35.9 baht

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