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Japan: A place where one can dream
A smart agri machine at ISEKE

Japan: A place where one can dream

Imagine some of the oldest agricultural equipment such as tractors and combine-harvesters finally being able to perform their task without the active involvement of farmers. Just think about a tractor ploughing an agricultural field in precise manner without needing a driver to steer the wheels. Or an agricultural machine which is capable of applying fertilizer or plant seeds in standardized way, free of any human involvement; all the while gathering real-time information about the soil nature, fertility, moisture and nutrient content; and analyzing it. Not only analyze but make real-time decisions to guide its action.

Also imagine farmers having critical support they need to perform rather routine but important tasks such as watering, applying the right amount of fertilizer, planting seeds and detecting pest and other problems.

You probably think this is something out of a science fiction movie; perhaps, very futuristic and something that cannot exist today, not at least until another century or so. Well, folks at ISEKI and & CO, LTD, the third largest agricultural machinery manufacturer in Japan, are here to tell you it might be a lot sooner than you think.

In fact, they have you believe that some of these machineries are already available in the Japanese market, although on a limited, on-demand basis. Better yet, step into their showroom located in Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture (Japanese equivalent of a district), they will show you self-driven tractors rumbling through the compound and test-sites.

Within short distance from this futuristic company is the Japanese International Cooperation Agency-run training facility featuring a group of agricultural experts and practitioners from around the world, toiling in the rice fields under the blistering sun, trying to figure out the most basic mysteries of nature.

Bayissa Gedefa, an agricultural researcher from Ethiopia who is an agricultural economist by training, has come a long way to be in JICA’s Tsukuba Agricultural Training C enter. And he is here to figure out one thing and one thing only: how to better cultivate rice in his home country and maximize the yields on small-holder farms. Well, knowing that rice, which is referred to as the “Millennium Crop” in his home country, and where the dominate staple and cash crops are teff and coffee, you might think he also is a dreamer; an imaginative who has got a long way to go. 

Bayissa had a short window to learn what he needs to in the seventh-month practical training program in Japan. But, he feels that he has already absorbed a lot in his short stay. He says the training is unique in sense that morning theoretical sessions are always complemented by practical demonstration and field work in the afternoons; while still maintaining focus on his rice conundrum back home.

Introduced to Ethiopian farms some three decades ago, rice is one of the least cultivated major crops in Ethiopia. Mainly concentrated in the Fogera area of the Amhara Regional State, rice cultivation is, however, showing strong growth in recent years. Estimated to have over 30 million hectares suitable for rice cultivation, Ethiopia exploited only the 1.7 million so far, according to Bayissa, and almost all of it is done through the so-called upland rice cultivation method, using either rein or irrigation.

Traditionally, the rice crop is typical of flooded lowland areas dubbed paddy fields. This, however, does not mean that highland rein-fed agriculture is not suited for the crop, Bayissa discusses. This is being exhibited in the recent uptake of the rice cropping in three Woredas in Oromia Regional State, where Bayissa’s research institute, Bako Agricultural Research Center, is largely active.

According to Bayissa, with slight improvement rice has the tendency to be productive crop in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, at the moment, the local productivity is 2.8 tons per hectare, far below the global average of 5.8 tons/hectare; and still lower than maize’s 3.9 tons/hectare yield in Ethiopia.                

In fact, rice is currently staple food for close to half the world population. According to Ricepedia.org, an online repository of relevant information on the crop, rice is by far the most important food crop for people in low-and lower-middle-income countries, with majority of human consumption featuring rice in different formats.

“Ethiopian farmers too are seeing the value of rice,” according to Bayissa, and his endeavor is to aide this new dynamism. Surely, there is long way to go before rice takes over the well-established staples of Ethiopia like teff and maize.  “The most traditional food item commonly found on the table of Ethiopians for breakfast, lunch and dinner is injera, which is made from teff. However, nowadays, there appears to be a change occurring – and not only in the extent of injera consumption, but also in its composition,” he argues.

“There are a number of recipes for injera, but the most common use flour made either purely from teff, or by combining teff, rice and/or maize flour,” says Bayissa expressing his hope for rice to become a primary item on the menu of Ethiopians.

“Actually, I am not saying rice will fully substitute Ethiopian teff injera, but nowadays, I have been seeing many Ethiopians’ mixing flour of teff with rice to make delicious injera and local brewery,” he asserts. The implication being, according to the young researcher, that rice production and consumption trend in Ethiopia is showing a marked increased from time to time.

Although he believes that this uptake in rice cultivation is due to mere expansion of the farm lands covered with rise, Bayissa is convinced even marginal improvement in the usage of simple agricultural machineries would have huge payback. For now, the limited groups of farmers, who have dared to venture into the rice business, are still using very rudimentary, hand-held implements like sickles for ploughing.

On the flip side, one of the top-of-the line agricultural machineries for ISEKI this year is the so called Rice-transplanter. This highly automatic machinery uses GNSS satellite guided systems to plant rice seeds in precise distance and depth so that the yield is highly maximized for a particular cropping cycle.

Apparently, rice plantation is a highly precise science with rice seeds placed in particular distance and raw from each other and kept straight yielding highest output; as high as 35 percent by ISEKI estimates.

Furthermore, since it is not traditional crop in Ethiopia, rice also suffers from lack of endogenous knowledge as to the nature of pest and insects that affects its yield considerably, Bayissa argues in his project inception paper. This is confirmed by researchers at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Science (JIRCAS), located in Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture. According to their view, rice production around the world is affected various transboundary diseases like Rice Blast and insects like Rice Planthoppers.

Nevertheless, rice acceptance among Ethiopian small-holder farmers is also about the availability and price of select seed varieties. According to Bayissa’s inception paper, since 1991 to 2006, About 29 improved rice varieties have been officially released officially for large-scale production, globally. “Of these, 10 are upland New Rice for Africa (NERICA) rice varieties including NERICA-4 NERICA-12, NERICA-13 and NERICA-3 released for rain-fed upland ecosystem and NERICA-1, NERICA-2, NERICA-6, NERICA- 14 and NERICA-15 released for upland - irrigated ecosystem,” he writes. So, what is required is proper matching of the seed varieties with the right fertilizer ecosystem.             

To help with this, Bayissa has camped at JICA’s Tsukuba center for four months with 800 others who have come from different countries to learn to solve their individual agricultural challenges. For the Ethiopian it is about understanding rice seed varieties and the right level of fertilizers application and the right ecosystem. And he will have another three month figure it out.  

On to another Japanese prefecture, Hyōgo, you get to meet another set of dreamers: ICT specialists who are also from Ethiopia imaging and working towards goals that looks pretty advanced for the current conditions of their home country. Hosted by Kobe Institute of Computing (KIC), Meklit Teshome, an ICT professional affiliated with the now defunct Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of Ethiopia, looks to be on a similar wave length as the innovators in ISEKI, having chosen smart agriculture as one of her projects while completing her two-year specialized master’s program with KIC.

According to her, the primary aim of her project will be to build a centralized data repository for Ethiopia’s agricultural sector that is instrumental in making machine learning possible, giving rise, one day, to smart agriculture implements in the rather archaic agricultural practice of Ethiopia. But for Meklit as well Japan is the perfect place to even begin to "dream," (in her own words) such things.

On her first year of the two-year program, Meklit seem to have set hefty goals for her training and explore the possibilities of developing software applications that could address the waste management problem of Addis Ababa on top of her smart agriculture project.

Learning at KIC is about flipping social problems over their heads and finding opportunities for intervention and further innovation, according to Meklit. “As I'm an ICT student, I have to think over which area of a problem can be supported using ICT? Obvious, ICT can be applied to all area of identified problems. But my solution should address the majority of society,” Meklit says.

Waste is a big social problem in Ethiopia especially in urban areas, Meklit says. “I was part of the society I face a lot of problems caused by waste when I live in Addis Ababa. Once I'm in Japan I noticed how clean the city is, how the society takes care of the environment and how waste is useful if it is managed and organized properly.”

All in all, Meklit asserts that waste management is about three major things: attitude, resource and infrastructure. “So, I am designing a system to support the waste collection process using mobile technology. I also want to do some applications which will be implemented in schools to gradually change the attitude of the young generation towards waste management,” she explains.

Months away from finishing her training and her innovative project involving ICT solutions to address health issues, Mahlet Sharew is another dreamer attempting to tackle one of the most deep-rooted problems in Ethiopia: stigma and misconception surrounding mental and developmental health disorders. Her project seeks to devise ICT-based solution to early detection of autism symptoms in children and providing the proper care. In a nation like Ethiopian where millions of children with developmental disorders are left in homes hidden from the world for the Stigma associated with the health problem; and all the beliefs of evil spirit causing such disorders, the task of devising a simple ICT-based solution that can dictate autism and which can easily be operated by medical professionals (nurses, doctors, and others) certainly pushes the border.  

“The use of ICT solutions for early autism detection in children is of vital importance as many lives are destroyed by the lack of resources, in this regard,” Mahlet said in her interview with The Reporter. The stigma surrounding mental health issues in Ethiopia and the misconceptions about the causes of the disorder is really appalling. “Many regarded Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to have supernatural causes precipitated by angered ancestral spirits, sinful wrongdoing predominantly by the mother, or the action of the devil,” says Mahlet; and that is why she has set out to work on an ICT-solution that can easily be implemented. “So, I want to fill the gap and proved ICT solutions (ASD Screening tools) that can easily operate by a nurse”.

Both Meklit and Mahlet are highly confident of the training they are receiving from KIC. They specifically site the so called the “Tankyu” method, apparently practiced only in the Institute, which entails a process of learning through solving social problems. “We taught techniques of identifying the problems [social problems], whatever they maybe, and finding solutions,” Meklit says adding, while polishing our skills in the process. This is what makes KIC training different from an ordinary postgraduate training, according to Mahlet, “KIC trains students how to use ICT to solve social problems; and how to design a business model for one’s project? Whereas other postgraduate trainings focus more on technical aspects,” says Mahlet.

The Japanese seems to be going to a different direction when it comes to formal education and training: sort of like the third way in education. Largely driven by interactive, practical-problem solving education, the Japanese public education system is of the highest quality.

Implementing an educational philosophy dubbed “TOKKATSU” at elementary and junior high levels, which entails the full education of the mind (knowledge), the soul (morality and societal value) and the physical body (health), Japanese public education system appears to be among the highly-rated in the world. And they want to share that with world, particularly Africa.

So far, from Africa, Egypt appears to be interested and has built 5o elementary schools fully guided by “TOKKATSU”.  For the rest, for the time being, Japan’s short and long-term international training programs appear to be attracting a number of professionals.

Situated in the city of Tsukuba, alternatively known as the “Science City” with its 300 research and training centers, JICA’s Tsukuba training center appears to be a place where a number of developing county’s professionals are afforded the material and intellectual prerequisites to dream, and dream big.