Digital bridges: Empowering the unconnected

Our aim isn’t to urbanise rural areas but to empower them — helping them work smarter, earn better and ensure they can thrive in the digital age 

WHEN we talk about bringing digital transformation, we often get asked about how we’ll bridge the gap between rural and urban areas, considering the differences in knowledge and infrastructure. 

Notably, the digital transformation journey is often overshadowed by the stark contrast between urban and rural areas. Cities have better Internet and more tech-savvy folks, which gives them a head start in the digital world. But rural areas often miss out on these benefits, which means they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to digital opportunities. 

But here’s the thing: Our aim isn’t to urbanise rural areas but to empower them — helping them work smarter, earn better and ensure they can thrive in the digital age. 

Empowerment Over Urbanisation

Empowerment, in this context, means providing rural communities with the tools and opportunities to improve their lives without fundamentally changing their way of life. 

Let’s take farmers for example. Empowering farmers doesn’t mean asking them to abandon agriculture for a job in an office but rather enabling them to farm more efficiently and profitably. 

The idea is to change the perception of agriculture from being seen as low-skilled and low-income to being high-skilled, productive and tech-intensive. This shift is crucial for harvesting digital transformation with a focus on inclusivity, sustainability and scalability throughout Malaysia’s agriculture sector. 

Redefining Agriculture 

And this isn’t just about handing farmers a smartphone and calling it a day. No, what we need are projects that involve teaching, training and supporting farmers to adopt agricultural technology (AgTech) solutions on a larger scale. 

Improving farmer incomes is a complex challenge, but empowering the agriculture sector with digital AgTech is a practical solution. 

Modernising Agriculture in Malaysia

In Malaysia, there have been advancements in this regard. For example, manual irrigation and fertilisation processes in crop farming are being replaced by digital farming systems, which use smart sensors to control and automate farming processes, optimising crop management and improving yields. 

Similar advancements are happening in fisheries and livestock sectors, where manual processes are being replaced by data-driven approaches, creating a better environment for marine life and boosting productivity in the livestock sector. 

Programmes like Malaysia Digital Economy Corp’s (MDEC) eLadang aim to modernise agriculture by increasing digital adoption and incorporating more technology into the sector. This then creates digital farmers and leads to sustained technology adoption that enhances productivity, improves food security and grows the digital economy. 

A small chilli farm in Klang, Selangor, is a great example. By embracing digital tech, the farmer 

there have increased their productivity by over 2,000kg per harvest per acre (an acre equals 0.4ha), leading to an extra monthly income of over RM2,000 per farmer per acre and cutting operational costs by over RM3,000 per harvest per acre. It’s a real-life example of how digital tools can transform rural businesses. 

Overcoming Challenges 

However, we must understand the challenges faced by the traditional farming sector and gather feedback from the local farming community to develop feasible and viable digital AgTech systems. 

Implementing digital transformation carefully is key. Forcing farmers to navigate the unfamiliar world of AgTech on their own would be unfair. Practical upskilling and reskilling modules on digitalisation are needed to equip farmers with new knowledge and enable them to adopt digital AgTech systems that increase farm productivity and income while reducing operational costs.

Cost is a big challenge, as buying and using new technology can be expensive. Plus, there’s the issue of user-friendliness, relevance and trust in new tech. Many rural folks might feel uncomfortable with or see the need for digital tools, which can hold them back. 

Partnerships to Scale Digital Empowerment

To make a difference, we’ve got to ramp up these essential programmes. And the key to tackling these challenges? Teamwork. We need to get the right folks involved and build up a real hunger for digital transformation in agriculture. 

Governments, organisations and communities can provide financial support and training to help rural communities adopt digital tech. Funding support for farmers and agribusinesses will make it easier for rural communities to invest in digital tools and technology. 

Fostering Digital Inclusivity

Scaling up successful digitalisation initiatives in agriculture, like the chilli farm in Klang, demonstrates the potential impact of such efforts. Expanding programmes like this can benefit more farmers and agribusinesses from digital empowerment. Scaling up not only addresses the challenges hindering technology adoption but also creates a more streamlined and accessible process for farmers to embrace digital tools and practices. 

By overcoming these challenges and creating a supportive environment for digital empowerment, we can ensure that rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age. 

  • Mahadhir Aziz is the CEO of MDEC. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition