Liu Haojie is part of a team of horticulture researchers and data scientists applying computer vision technology to identify and nip plant disease in the bud.
His team, CyberTomato, is competing against other teams from leading institutes in the second Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo, China’s largest agriculture platform. They aim to put the technology developed during the competition to practical use and help farmers improve their production, said Liu.
“China is facing the challenge of rising labor costs and aging farmers,” said Liu, who founded an agritech startup after graduating from university. “Toward the end stage of the competition, we will review our technologies and come up with a viable solution. Ultimately, we hope to commercialize it to help farmers.”
With eight out of 10 participants in their 20s, Pinduoduo’s Smart Agriculture Competition has emerged as a leading showcase of young agricultural talent in China. The multidisciplinary approach taken by the competition encourages cross-pollination of ideas by combining expertise from different scientific and technological fields. It also serves as a bridge to connect agricultural scientists and digital technology experts with smallholder farmers, so that those developing new technologies are attuned to the challenges faced by farmers in the field. Such exchanges also help to promote 'youth transfer' in addition to 'technology transfer'.
In agriculture, youth and education are still a relative rarity. More than half of all farmers in China are aged over 55 and almost half of them possess only primary education. Despite making up 40% of China’s workforce, agriculture accounts for less than 9% of GDP. This productivity gap offers a vast opportunity waiting to be seized.
“Agriculture is an industry with great potential for young people considering a future in technology and who aspire to make an impact on society,” Chen Lei, Pinduoduo Chairman and CEO, said on a conference call following the release of its third-quarter results. “As an agri-focused platform, we want to leverage our platform and technology to provide more opportunities for young talent to join the agriculture sector, working with them to apply technology to improve every link of the agricultural supply chain.”
By tackling the shortage of talent and technology in agriculture, Pinduoduo hopes to do its part to further raise the productivity of agriculture and support rural vitalization. Pinduoduo announced the launch of a '10 Billion Agriculture Initiative' in August which is dedicated to addressing critical needs in the agricultural sector and rural areas.
Besides getting more young people to get involved in agricultural science and technology, attracting young, entrepreneurial farmers is also an important part of the formula for boosting productivity growth in the agriculture sector. These New Farmers are much more likely to embrace technology and new ways of doing things.
Chen said that Pinduoduo will focus its efforts on digital inclusion in agriculture. The company will expand its course offerings on Duo Duo Academy, its training arm, to equip farmers with the necessary skills to operate e-commerce businesses. Pinduoduo will also maintain its 'zero commission' policy on agricultural products while promoting consumer awareness of agricultural treasures produced by the 16 million farmers that sell through its platform.
“Investing in technology to improve the agriculture sector is an important, yet challenging task,” Chen said. “It requires our long-term commitment, and we will be patient and systematic. We hope that through our efforts, we can help build a smarter and more sustainable future for agriculture.”