When technology meets agriculture in Bhutan

Bhutan is a challenging environment in which to develop commercial agriculture. The country has limited areas for agriculture, and its geography and road conditions make logistics and market access costly. Therefore, commercial agriculture is critical to increase productivity, which will help create jobs and access to more and better food. This can be achieved not only through focusing on high-value products and investing in traditional infrastructure such as irrigation, but also through using information and communication technology (ICT). Based in eastern Bhutan, Mountain Hazelnuts has developed innovative uses of ICT for its commercial agriculture operations.

The company was established in 2009 as Bhutan’s only 100% foreign invested company, financed partly by the World Bank Group’s International Finance Cooperation and the Asian Development Bank. The company has created more than 800 direct jobs, and about 10,000 farmers are growing hazelnut trees throughout Bhutan, about half of which are women.

Farmers are happy with their contributions. When I visited Bumthang – the central district in Bhutan – I spontaneously asked a question to a farmer how he felt working with Mountain Hazelnuts. He was very happy with what he was doing. He explained to me that growing hazelnuts is consistent with Gross National Happiness – the country’s development philosophy, especially the principles of environmental conservation and equitable socio-economic development. He also appreciated the support from the company including the use of ICT.

For example, 150 staff regularly visit all farmers to record progress of the growth of plants and raise any issues using an internally-developed application on their smart phones. The farmers also use smart phones and ICT to communicate with Mountain Hazelnuts staff. More than half of the farmers have smart phones, although not all of them are literate. Thus, the company uses voice messaging and video-recording functions of a Social Network Service (SNS) to communicate with farmers.

The most recent technical innovation of the company has been to use ICT to address supply chain and logistics challenges. While the company operates throughout the country, domestic road networks remains weak. It takes about 2 days to travel from the west to east (about 500km). Both natural and man-made roadblocks are ongoing everywhere. However, traffic information is not readily available. Therefore, the company developed a new system to monitor road conditions and time spent between different locations. About 150 staff update information on road conditions and travel times. The data is further shared through OpenStreetMap so that all relevant staff can access the information. The information is used to plan logistics operations, reducing transportation delays and costs. Truck hiring rates per kilometer have been standardized, cutting transport costs and reducing the administrative overhead of negotiating ad-hoc transport arrangements.

With the exchange of information and experience, these initiatives are likely to lead to synergies. For example, the government has recently established Bhutan’s first ICT college in mid-2017. Mountain Hazelnut’s main branch and the college are located in the same district. The college students can build on academic learning and learn how to use ICT for business applications.

Another example is a potential partnership with the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, which is responsible for road construction and maintenance. It has created a Road Condition Information System, which can be integrated with Mountain Hazelnuts’ information on road conditions and travel times into, which would lead to greater accuracy and frequency of transportation information.