Chris Chen, Head of Digital Transformation at Syngenta Asia Pacific, speaks extensively about the transformative role AI and other digital technologies play in the agricultural sector, specifically in the Asia Pacific region.

In this TNGlobal Q&A, Chen shares how AI-driven solutions have ushered in a new era for agriculture, enabling optimization of crop yields, real-time diagnosis of crop diseases, and precise application of crop protection products. By harnessing vast datasets, including satellite imagery and weather forecasts, AI can provide granular predictions that can tackle global challenges such as food security and climate change more effectively.

One such application of this AI-driven approach is the company’s own mobile app, which provides real-time pest and disease diagnosis and has contributed toward transforming agricultural practices in the Asia Pacific region. While the integration of AI with traditional farming methods requires balancing age-old practices with modern technology, AI has shown promise in providing solutions tailored to diverse agricultural practices in the region. Furthermore, emerging digital technologies such as IoT and satellite imagery have revolutionized agricultural practices in APAC, addressing major challenges like labor shortages and optimizing resource use.

Chen emphasizes the importance of understanding the unique challenges faced by farmers in APAC, including the predominance of smallholder farmers, fragmented land ownership, and reliance on traditional methods. Despite these hurdles, he highlights the massive potential for digital technology adoption once these issues are addressed. Chen also draws parallels between the challenges faced in the digitization of the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, emphasizing the central role of serving people—whether patients or farmers. Looking to the future, he envisions a shift from generalized farming methods to precision agriculture in APAC, enabled by the continuous integration of digital technologies.

Chris Chen, Head of Digital Transformation at Syngenta Asia Pacific

Can you shed light on the primary ways AI-driven solutions are revolutionizing the agricultural sector, especially in optimizing crop yields?

AI is proving itself a game-changer in the agricultural sector. The industry is starting to harness the power of data science and machine learning to not just predict, but optimize crop yields, diagnose crop diseases, and even support the application of crop protection products. These technologies have the ability to analyze huge data sets, including satellite imagery and weather forecasts, to make granular predictions; they can even play a role in R&D, accelerating the development of novel biological products. This AI-driven approach allows us to tackle global challenges like food security and climate change even more aggressively. With the power of AI, we have the potential to harness diagnostic tools that allow timely and accurate interventions to optimize crop yields.

For instance, we launched a mobile application called CROPWISE(TM) Grower for farmers in Asia Pacific last November. With over half a million registered users already, the app features on-demand advice, agricultural best practices, and crop protection solutions. One of the app’s most used features is the real-time snap-and-detect pest and disease diagnosis. The app has a global database of over 50 crops and 500 diseases, and using AI-enabled image recognition, identifies the issue and recommends a solution in real time. The app then geotags the issue and alerts farmers early about potential pest and disease pressures in their surrounding area. This accurate and timely diagnosis is helping to maximize crop yields and minimize resource wastage, transforming agriculture norms in the Asia Pacific.

How do AI algorithms integrate with traditional farming practices, especially in the APAC region, to ensure that farmers can grow more with less?

I believe incorporating AI with traditional farming is about finding a balance between age-old practices and cutting-edge technology. By converting the vast knowledge of crop science into models and algorithms that take the shape of easy-to-use mobile applications, we can automate tasks, such as crop health diagnostics as seen in the CROPWISE(TM) Grower app. Farmers often rely on previous experience and tradition, which is increasingly challenging, given the unpredictability of weather conditions and the emergence of new pests and diseases.

Machine learning has the potential to accelerate this process further. Asia Pacific, with its diverse agriculture practices, benefits immensely as AI can provide robust recommendations tailored to local practices. Moreover, feedback loops, stemming from real-world data, can help systems be continuously refined, enhancing their accuracy and effectiveness.

How are emerging digital technologies like IoT, satellite imagery, and mobile applications reshaping agriculture practices in APAC?

Emerging digital technologies offer a fascinating landscape for agricultural evolution in the Asia Pacific. With the decreasing cost of smartphones and accessibility of internet connectivity in the region, we are very privileged to be witnessing massive leaps in technological adoption; a nice change from the linear progression we have been used to. While other regions have traditionally been the pioneers of digital technologies, Asia Pacific, particularly its developing regions, is uniquely positioned to learn from advanced markets and capitalize on these advancements in a shorter period.

If we take the example of drones, more mature countries have spent years developing drone applications for agriculture, from crop monitoring to pesticide spraying, and we have seen the hardware evolve to suit their vast areas of farmland. This piece of technology is immediately applicable to the small farms in the Asia Pacific, which are often a fraction of the size of their Western counterparts. Farmers here can instantly access refined and market-ready drones, speeding up the digital transformation process to solve one of the major challenges here in APAC – labor shortage.

From your experience in both the tech and agricultural sectors, how would you compare the adoption rate of these digital technologies in agriculture to other industries?

From my experience, the adoption of digital technologies in agriculture is not as rapid as in other sectors, but it is steadily increasing. The challenges are unique, particularly in Asia Pacific, where we often work with rural smallholder farmers who may not have the digital literacy or access to the necessary technology. However, compared to the adoption of digital technologies in other sectors, agriculture’s digital growth is both vital and urgent, addressing fundamental challenges like food security and climate change, making digital transformation in the agriculture sector not just about profitability or efficiency, but also survival and resilience.

I believe over the last 12 months, we have witnessed a tipping point in the adoption of digital technologies with our farmers. CROPWISE(TM) Grower app which has 500,000 users across India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Thailand, and Malaysia (over 497,008 users as of August 2023), has seen over 100,000 new users in just the last 4 weeks. We expect this momentum to continue for the foreseeable future.

Can you provide insights into the core features of the Cropwise Grower app and how it empowers smallholder farmers in the APAC region? What distinguishes it from other mobile applications catering to farmers?

What truly sets the CROPWISE(TM) Grower app apart from other agricultural apps is its holistic approach. It is not just a crop diagnosis tool, but a comprehensive digital companion designed to meet the end-to-end needs of farmers, from planting preparation to selling the crops. With the app, farmers can easily access crop protection inputs for their crops, markets where they can sell their harvests, and even weather information. Farmers will also be able to connect directly with Syngenta’s experts and service providers, allowing them to receive agronomic advice, drone applications, and even financial services. This means that farmers don’t just get advice on farming practices but have a suite of resources that address various phases of their agricultural journey.

We designed and tested the app with rural farmers in mind. This is why we include critical features that are available offline for users in areas with intermittent internet connection. We also ensured that it would be available in local languages, including nine local languages across India. Our goal is to empower farmers not just with technology, but with technology tailored to their unique needs, challenges, and aspirations. This vision of hyper localization, and foundational agronomy expertise from Syngenta, combined with cutting-edge AI, differentiates our offering in the market.

How does the on-demand advice feature work on your app? Do you employ AI to offer real-time suggestions to farmers or is there a human expert team in the background?

The ability to provide on-demand advice to farmers in real-time is an area where I expect to see more exciting developments in the coming year.

Knowledge exchange between farmers traditionally depends on proximity. Any issues or new information depends on what neighboring farmers in the community know. Now, there is potential to tap into AI technology to pass

on knowledge from farmer to farmer at a speed and scale that wasn’t possible before. AI technology can be trained on any product, and this is already having huge positive implications for our technical sales teams. Our plan is to extend this natural language model to farmer communications within Cropwise Grower in our 2024 release plan. For pest and disease diagnosis we currently provide immediate responses and product recommendations where available, without human interaction. For general inquiries, we have a team of experts that currently answer these queries.

Asia Pacific is a diverse region of many nationalities and languages. There is tremendous potential to tap into AI to help overcome language differences and literacy levels. The application of voice recognition technology will go even further to help bridge this gap and expand our reach amongst smallholder farmers from different demographics and education levels, making information more accessible than ever.

Chris Chen (front right) in the field with farmers

What have been the major challenges in implementing AI and digital technology solutions for farmers in the APAC region?

One prominent challenge is the predominance of smallholder farmers in Asia Pacific. Unlike other markets with vast farms averaging around 400 hectares, our region is uniquely characterized by numerous smallholders, each managing about 2 hectares of land. This fragmentation means solutions cannot merely be broad scale; they have to be localized. Engaging with such a diverse and expansive group requires significant on-ground presence and personalized outreach.

Infrastructure and accessibility also pose a challenge. While urban areas are progressing in Asia Pacific, many rural areas still grapple with basic infrastructure issues. Limited or inconsistent internet connectivity, limited access to advanced hardware, and even unstable electricity supply can be significant roadblocks.

Farmers in the Asia Pacific also tend to rely on tried and tested methods, some of which have been passed down through generations. There’s an inherent trust in traditional methods and introducing new technologies can sometimes be met with skepticism. Building trust and showcasing tangible benefits becomes crucial.

Take, for example, Syngenta’s efforts to scale up the adoption of drones in India to address the water and labor shortage in 2022. It was a massive effort to provide more than 150 drone demonstrations across 12 states across 17,000 km of land to reach more than 100,000 farmers.

Despite these challenges, the potential rewards are immense. As we have seen with the rapid adoption of the CROPWISE(TM) Grower app and drones, once these hurdles are addressed, the rate of adoption and the resultant benefits can be transformative for the entire agricultural ecosystem in the region.

Beyond the direct benefits to farmers, can you highlight some of the larger environmental benefits that come with using these digital tools?

The potential of digital tools to benefit the environment is immense. Recognizable climatic patterns, such as El Niño, have a substantial influence on weather conditions, impacting crop yields.

Advanced data-driven models can help farmers predict their yield potential based on expected climatic patterns. This foresight can help farmers make proactive adjustments and, strategically optimize their crop protection products and farm management practices. Farmers are equipped to make more informed decisions, ensuring they can achieve optimal yields even in challenging conditions. Simultaneously, they can significantly reduce finite inputs, such as water. This translates into tangible economic benefits for farmers and ensures a more sustainable approach to agriculture.

Given your rich experience in pharmaceuticals, how do you see parallels between the digitization challenges faced in that industry and agriculture?

In the pharmaceutical world, digitization plays a big role in drug discovery, patient management, and ensuring supply chain efficiency. The challenges include maintaining data privacy, ensuring accurate and timely data-driven insights, and navigating regulatory landscapes. Similarly, in agriculture, especially in the Asia Pacific, digital tools can be used to manage crop health, predict weather patterns, and even optimize supply chains. Here, farmers are often located in rural areas with limited access to digital infrastructure. This can make it difficult to implement and use digital technologies.

At the heart of both the pharmaceutical and agriculture industries is putting people at the center – whether it is patients or farmers – through medicine or food. Once the benefits of digital tools are demonstrated to be safe and effective, both sectors show a willingness to adapt. In both cases, this leads to better decision-making, efficiency, and sustainable practices.

How do you envision the future of agriculture in APAC, especially with the continuous integration of AI and other digital technologies?

I expect to see a greater shift from traditional farming practices to precision agriculture. This means, that instead of generalized farming methods, farmers will be equipped with localized insights about when to plant, the precise amount of inputs needed, and when to harvest. Not only will this ensure maximum yields with minimal resources, it will also help farmers safeguard their livelihoods.

With the increasing adoption of technologies like IoT, satellite imagery, and machine learning, real-time monitoring and problem-solving will become the norm. Issues such as pest infestations or diseases will be detected at nascent stages, allowing for timely interventions, and minimizing crop damage. This robust support ecosystem will drive both economic growth and food security for the region.

With the increasing availability of data from IoT devices and satellite imagery, are there concerns about data privacy and how is Syngenta addressing them?

Absolutely, data privacy is a paramount concern for us at Syngenta. We have robust measures in place to ensure the data we collect is stored and used in compliance with the highest standards of privacy and data security. Our policies are transparent and adhere to local and international regulations, and we continually educate our farmers about these policies to maintain their trust.

Lastly, what advice would you give to tech startups looking to make a meaningful impact in the agricultural sector, especially in the APAC region?

My advice would be to focus on understanding the unique challenges and needs of the farmers in APAC. Too often we see startups trying to force fit their solution into the market. From experience, we have also realized that given the complexities across APAC, a one-size-fits-all product will

struggle to find success. All of our digital products are built in a modular nature to allow scalability as well as customization at the country level. At an operational level, solutions need to be affordable, easy to use, and secure.

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