Pajulia village in Gazipur near Dhaka has a typical Bangladeshi agro-based economy. Nearly 90 percent of the villagers make a living out of agricultural activities of some sort – cultivating paddy, growing vegetables, rearing cattle, and so on.
The village has a reputation for growing fine vegetables, but often times, diseases have kept the farmers from reaching their potential.
“Recently, my father cultivated cauliflower on half an acre of land. But he couldn’t reap the harvest because just before the cauliflower matured, a strange disease gripped the field,” said Ajuman Ara, one of the elected woman councilors of the Pajulia Union Council.
Anjuman, who is a lawyer by profession, also said: “My family has been involved in farming for generations. Still, my father couldn’t take evasive measures to protect his harvest from the disease. The local agriculture office is quite far. He couldn’t get help from them in time.”
For millennia, Bangladeshi farmers have been relying on local knowledge to protect their crops from diseases. Taking this as a lead, last year, the Department of Computer Science and Information Technology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University (BSMRAU), also located in Gazipur, initiated a project named E-Village.
The concept was to develop a specialized digital device that would make use of multiple sensors and work in tandem with smartphones to give crucial information about soil, environment and crop health. The farmers would use these devices through a specialized smartphone app to collect data from the crop fields and vegetable gardens and send them to a server using internet. Analyzing the data, agriculture experts would give them specific advice on the use of pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, etc.
In February, BSMRAU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Dhaka with Bangladeshi research organization Centre for Research and Information (CRI) and Chinese IT firm iSoftStone for developing the sensor device and the smartphone app.
Chinese experts from iSoftStone has already developed the device and the app and CRI was involved as a strategic partner. The Embassy of People’s Republic of China in Bangladesh was an active overseer and facilitator of the E-Village project.
The Chinese experts, in close association with CRI and BSMRAU, are currently working to make the device and the app error free. A Bangla interface of the app is already in place considering the lack of English knowledge among the farmers.
Zhang Kun, senior ISST solutions consultant at iSoftStone, said: “Our ultimate goal is to help the farmers maximize their outputs and minimize their inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, etc. For this, ICT is a good choice because globally, it has had huge impact on economies and people’s lives.”
On April 3, 2017, a demonstration session was held at the Virtual Classroom inside the Central Lab building on the BSMRAU campus. A total of 15 farmers from the Pajulia village were given one device and one smartphone each.
“This device will make us self-sufficient. We will have all the information we need. We won’t have to go to anyone for this. We will just send SMS over phone and we will get solutions to our problems,” said Md Moidul Islam, one of the 15 villagers from Pajulia.
Over the following three weeks, experts from the university would give first hand training to the farmers on how to use these devices.
“If a farmer personally wants to have a device that would give him all these data, it would cost not less than 60,000 Taka, which a farmer clearly cannot afford. But, the price that we have fixed for this device is just 4,000 Taka. The plan is to bring the price below 2,000 Taka,” said Md. Roshidul Hasan, head of the department of Computer Science and Information Technology at BSMRAU.
“Digital Bangladesh is not a fiction any more. So, why would the Bangladeshi farmers be left behind? Our farmers would be smart farmers as well,” said Roshidul, the man and the brain behind the program.
Local lawmaker Mr Jahidul Ahsan Russel had a look of disbelief when the system was being demonstrated at the program. He was pleasantly surprised to find out that the device actually works pretty well.
“This [E-Village] is already a groundbreaking innovation in the agriculture sector of Bangladesh. A farmer would have all the data he needs from his smartphone right after he wakes up in the morning. This was almost unthinkable until now. It’s amazing how far Bangladesh has progressed. This is Digital Bangladesh,” he told the audience that included the 15 farmers from Pajulia.
The plan now is to build at least one model village under the E-village project in every district around the country over the next couple of years. Currently, the app deals with crops only. In the future, fisheries and livestock will be incorporated as well.