The era of digital farming has succeeded in reconstructing the way farmers around the world approach agriculture. Today’s precision agriculture allows farming communities to capture every minute detail of crop growth — from planning to production — along with the various parameters affecting it. Producers are thus able to monitor their crops closely throughout the cultivation cycle for enhanced agricultural productivity, higher output quality, and minimum crop loss. This is particularly pivotal in the seed industry where several departments within the organisation keep a close watch on every stage of crop cultivation to produce the best quality seeds possible
for the market’s current needs. Aggregates of raw data collected at the ground level provide the necessary insights required by the R&D department to produce seeds with desired traits or a favourable crop performance for specific environmental conditions in a region. Agri-tech solutions also empower field staff to optimise the yield with the help of smart weather-based crop advisory and alerts for potential pest infestations and crop diseases. In the past couple of years, seed traceability has found its way into everyday conversations between stakeholders in the agroecosystem. The quality of seeds translates into the quality of the yield. Having realised the relevance of big data analytics in enhancing farm productivity and in strategic business operations, agribusinesses are increasingly investing in modern digital applications built on satellite imaging, cloud technology, Geographic Information System (GIS), and artificial intelligence and machine learning.
In Conversation With
is presently the Group CIO at East-West Seed, a privately-owned Dutch company that is one of the largest vegetable seed companies in the world and a producer of an assortment of hybrids and open-pollinated seeds. He is a seasoned IT professional with nearly two decades of rewarding global experience heading IT in domains that include agriculture, manufacturing, logistics, life sciences, and utilities. He is also proficient in designing a successful IT governance and strategy to drive innovative and disruptive change within the organisation. At East-West Seed, he leads Information Technology, Business Transformation and Digital Initiatives within and for the company, and as the CIO, he plays an integral role in laying out the future business operating model for East-West Seed while also enabling and automating the same using modern ERP and digital platforms. East-West Seed is presently restructuring its business operations and the technology they use. While the organisation has been extremely successful in their endeavours as a seed company in the last 35 years, they envision the crux of business transformation in their need to change the way they operate and in the way they make the best use of modern technologies.
East-West Seed has outranked 12 other leading global seed companies when it comes to R&D as a key measurement area in the Access to Seeds Index 2019, owing largely to its comprehensive breeding programs and an impressive 12 R&D sites in six index countries. Your R&D division is also one of the largest in the country in terms of seed productivity and increased yield. What was the thought process behind prioritising R&D?
Shijo Joseph: When you look at R&D, it is at the heart of the organisation. There is a lot of innovation happening within the R&D department that is actually driving the seed market — it could be in terms of higher disease resistance or reduced use of pesticides through the crop cycle. However, with the change in the climatic conditions, the market’s requirements, and current trends, technology plays an indispensable role in catering to the market requirements. So, how fast R&D can turn around and provide for the current market would be more critical in the future. Hence, it would become more of a market-driven R&D rather than an R&D-driven product. I think that is where technology plays a major role.
How do you take a call on which variety seed a farmer or a market needs?
Shijo Joseph: There is a variety of information that is taken into account to make a decision in terms of what kind of variety should be developed and where it should be used as well. Traditionally, one of the major inputs is from the market itself because almost 60% of our people are on the field who give us inputs regarding what crops are being grown and what issues are there on the field. We also have our Knowledge Transfer team that visits farmers and educates them on the best farming practices. These farmers also provide us with critical inputs. There is also extensive market data available with respect to what one should be cultivating in a particular field, and R&D plays a key role here.
Data security and data management are integral parts of IT centralisation. Do you feel the same considering East-West Seed is a research organisation that handles volumes of data?
Shijo Joseph: Yes, we definitely need to speak about data security and IP security here. This is a thought process that goes beyond the organisation. Currently, we are working with multiple agro-companies and government bodies together to look into the overall security posture of the agro-industry. We believe that it is very important to not only look at data management within the individual organisation but also at how we manage R&D, IP and data security within the agricultural sector.
What are your views on the role of financial institutions? How well do you think they understand the value chain, the importance, and possible rate of return of quality seeds. Also, should the cost of seeds be taken into account while considering the value of input credit that is provided to farmers?
Shijo Joseph: If you break down the entire agri-input cost, the seed cost is approximately 3% of the total. So, when you move to hybrid or high-quality seeds, there are certain factors that you need to consider in terms of what the expected output is versus the actual output. This is very important for financial institutions. The seed’s quality plays a key role there, not the cost. For example, most hybrid seeds give a 95% germination assurance for the said 3% seed cost. It is this factor that plays a determining role by giving financial institutions more assurance in terms of the yield’s quality and ROI.
As the organisation's CIO, how do you think technology is driving efficient strategic planning that is in line with business goals and growth objectives?
Shijo Joseph: Strategic planning is probably the most challenging part of the agriculture industry because we have very long-term plans spanning five to seven years. However, with unpredictable changes in the market and in the climate, technology, and data insights are paramount to devise strategies within the organisation. Hence, planning technologies and solutions are playing a predominant role in the agricultural industry.
EWS promotes the development and cultivation of tropical vegetable seeds, which help farmers grow better crops. In your opinion, what is the role of technology in enhancing agricultural productivity?
Shijo Joseph: One needs to look at two areas where agri-technology is playing a role. One is, of course, the product and its processing, which ultimately gives a better yield and a longer life to the seed. The other is where technology needs to improve to help farmers on the field during the cultivation process itself. It is not a straightforward solution because smallholder farmers cannot afford all the technologies that evolve. So, it is important to understand what can be provided to them in a simple, timely manner, so that it helps improve production capabilities. As mentioned earlier, we produce a lot of data and derive insights from the market, from R&D, and from internal business operations as well. This data is used to improve the productivity and sustainability of what we produce on the field, and also to share agronomic knowledge with farmers and the field extension team.
EWS' founder, Mr Simon N. Groot, was awarded the renowned international ‘World Food Prize’, which recognises human development through quality and availability of food in the world. Could you tell us a little more about what makes EWS unique in its approach to achieving the same?
Shijo Joseph: East-West Seed is a purpose-driven company, and the award is a testament to the same purpose that we place above all. Our founder’s vision of serving smallholder farmers in the Southeast Asian region and other countries has been the prime focus of the company for the past 35 years. This award goes to that vision and purpose of our founder.
What are your suggestions to farming communities around the world to ensure sustainability and food security?
Shijo Joseph: The farming communities need to work together because the changing climatic conditions and the varying demand and supply dynamics make it difficult to follow traditional ways of agriculture. So there is definitely a need for collaboration. For this purpose, technology and data insights are being infused in this field. The more progressive we are in this area, the better the productivity we will have.