Editorial Notes

Good move to digitally empower Indonesian farmers: The Jakarta Post

A farmer dries corn cobs during the harvest season in Demak, Indonesia's Central Java province.
A farmer dries corn cobs during the harvest season in Demak, Indonesia's Central Java province.PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on Apr 13, the Jakarta Post says this should go some way to reduce the income gap

Information technology advancements have in many places resulted in a digital divide and eventually a widened income gap, merely because the poor are mostly internet illiterate.

The government's move, announced on Monday, to provide mobile apps to farmers in the Central Java town of Brebes must be part of an effort to address that inequality, which is particularly rampant in the agricultural sector.

President Joko Widodo was simply doing his job when he launched the apps, called Petani, TaniHub, LimaKilo, PantauHarga and Nurnaya Initiative, which were all made by local start-up technology companies, to give farmers easier access to information about crops, prices, farming equipment and even farming counseling.

Through the app Petani, farmers can, for example, access information about farming equipment stores, farming training, agricultural news and online market places for selling their crops.

Farmers can use PantauHarga to compare commodity prices in other cities.

The government's support for farmers in the e-commerce era is both essential and commendable, given the fact that they have so far earned the smallest piece of the pie in the agriculture industry while bearing all the risks, including crop failure.

For many farmers, mobile devices are no longer a luxury.

The problem is just that they do not know how to use, let alone make money from, the fast-developing technology.

The most immediate benefit of the apps will be farmers having access to extra information to use as a weapon for negotiating with traders.

Without access to information, farmers have for a long time become easy prey for middlemen.

The yawning disparity between prices at farm versus prices at the retailer clearly demonstrates the power of information that eludes many farmers.

It's no wonder, as Mr Joko has discovered himself, that the price of shallots for consumers is almost double the amount paid to farmers in Brebes.

The price disparity not only stems from high logistics costs, one of the constant problems plaguing the economy, but also from the long supply chain and the control held by powerful traders over the market.

The long supply chain occurs because agricultural products go through a number of middlemen between farmers and consumers.

Under the New Order, village cooperatives, known as KUDs (Koperasi Unit Desa), helped to shorten the supply chain. KUDs were assigned to buy several main commodities from farmers, such as rice, soybeans and shallots, and sell them directly to distributors.

The cooperatives rivaled big traders who often trapped farmers with high-interest loans.

The new mobile apps will, of course, not immediately solve the problem nor does the technology provide farmers with an equal playing field.

The apps will empower them in the face of rapidly growing e-commerce activity, which they should embrace sooner rather than later.

To make the apps relevant and effective across the county, farmers need an institution, either in the form of KUDs or farmers associations, which can act on their behalf to, for example, market their farm products through online marketplaces.

In the era of the digital economy, farmers do not need government subsidies; they need empowerment.

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The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.