The Palm Scribe

Digitalization Helps to Scale Up Smallholder Participation in Sustainable Palm Oil Drive

Independent oil palm smallholders are becoming an increasingly important force in the global palm oil sector, including in Indonesia were they now supply around 38 percent of national output, and digitalization is providing a means to help draw more of these smallholders into the fold of sustainability at a scalable impact.

“I think digitalization is one of the keys to scale up…to reach more independent smallholders,” said Trijanto Fitriyardi, an Operation Officer of the International Finance Corporation (IFC). A global development institutions that is a member of the World Bank Group, IFC has developed e-Sawit, a digital app to teach good agricultural practices to oil palm smallholders.

With Indonesia’s palm oil production increasingly relying on the output of these independent smallholder farmers, with a recent research showing that the area cultivated by oil palm smallholders having seen a massive expansion in the last two decades to now cover nearly half of the country’s oil palm plantation, it has become important that the farming activities be carried out efficiently.

But their geographical isolation and the fact that they were not tied to big plantation companies made them unable to access knowledge on good agricultural practices, agricultural inputs and financing and thus making it difficult for independent smallholders to expand and improve their activities. 

Lack of quality education, limited access to finance, technology and agricultural input, weak if not absent organizational skills, was preventing smallholders from not only raising their productivity but also from cultivating their crop in a sustainable way,

Teoh Cheng Hai, an IFC advisor on palm oil strategy and outreach, said that his organization had conducted a baseline diagnostic study of some 1,000 independent smallholders in Sumatra in 2013, as part of a collaboration project with palm oil grower Musim Mas and found that only three percent had received training in agriculture and that their main source of information on how to grow palm oil was their neighbors and other family members.

With regards to sustainable palm oil, less than one percent of the farmers involved in the project knew about sustainable palm oil, or palm oil sustainable certification bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) or the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), the later one now made mandatory by law for palm oil growers in Indonesia.

“The single most essential activity to increase smallholder productivity in the long term, is in fact technical assistance, including awareness building and training,” he said.

The project took a two-pronged approach, one by forming a core of field assistants, through training of trainers, who would then educate farmers about good agricultural practices and another through the development and use of the digital app.

“We thought that there was a need to scale up training smallholders and one approach is actually to do take the e-learning approach, the digital approach and using the smartphone of the farmers themselves,” said Teoh, speaking at a recent webinar.

E-Sawit, was now available in two languages — Indonesian and English — for free on google store. it combines the use of animated 3-D explanations, 3-D models, videos and voice overs. 

Rahmat Syakib, an IFC Operation Officer who among other deals with e-learning, said that the app also came with and Augmented Reality (AR) booklet that allows learning offline and there was also a link provided to access a video that acts as a manual that provide step-by-step use of e-Sawit.

“E-Sawit is a marker-based AR app, the AR booklet marker can be downloaded from google play store,” he added.

Syakib said that so far e-Sawit provided two modules, one on manuring and the other on harvesting.

“We hope to eventually expand, to have more modules for the farmer’s curriculum,” Teoh said, while Syakib said that “we are under discussion with other partners to seek possible collaboration to add more modules.”

 Fitriyardi admitted that there were still some problems facing a wider use of e-Sawit, some infrastructure problems, like internet connections, and the need for some farmers, especially the elderly ones, to be able to use their mobile phones for e-learnings.

“This needs digital literacy, including how to find it at the google play store, how to install and steps in taking the course and quiz,” Syakib said, adding that the developer of the ap was anticipating this by providing the e-sawit manual video for farmers.

He said farmers can learn through the e-sawit off-internet connection but the app needed to be installed when internet connections available.

He also said that internet connection in the country was now improving due to increase of internet programs by government so satisfy the need of students to learn from home during the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic.

“Since 2015 until the end of 2020, the project has trained 43,000 smallholders on Best Management Practices,” said IFC stakeholder engagement and smallholder advisor Helen Delima Lumban Gaol regarding the Musim Mas-IFC program.

Guntur Cahyo Prabowo , RSPO Indonesia smallholder program manager,  said that the e-Sawit program, which RSPO started promoting as an e-learning tool just in December 2020, enabled users to gain training on Best Management Practices for harvesting and fertilizing, both before and after gaining certification from the organization.

“The App also enables users to learn and test their understanding via a quick quiz at the end of each topic. The Augmented Reality (AR) innovation incorporated in the App provides animation and video play to images shown in the E-Sawit booklet, making it interactive unlike other tools,” he told the Palm Scribe in an email.

Prabowo said that e-Sawit provided a good post training tool for smallholders to practice their knowledge and understanding on their own farms. In partnership with IFC, RSPO will use e-Sawit for its trainers at the RSPO Smallholder Trainer Academy (STA) as a tool in their training.

“It is estimated that once this tool is fully introduced and socialized with smallholders via STA training, it will have the potential to reach approximately 5,000 smallholders in Indonesia alone,” he said.

More from Bhimanto Suwastoyo.
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