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  • Writer's pictureDavid Connolly

Talking irrigation and agritech adoption

Recently Sarah Biggerstaff from CEAT caught up with J. Matthew Pryor to talk about the Up Stream Ag Insights and Agtech so what? report ‘The agtech adoption dilemma: irrigation’ which outlines barriers to irrigation technology adoption among farmers.

The efficient and effective irrigation of crops is essential to the agriculture sector, however only 16% of the world’s croplands are irrigated today, as much as 60% of the water withdrawn for irrigation does not reach the crop, as it is lost through canal leakage, spillage, infiltration and unproductive evaporation*. The report notes that ‘despite the potential benefits, changing irrigation behaviour has proven to be very challenging at scale’, and argues that this is primarily due to human psychology. Human beings have an innate aversion to risk, and while new technologies for improved water efficiency are emerging all the time, until they are adopted more broadly they are perceived as risky, but they are unlikely to be adopted more broadly until they are seen as tried and trusted. It’s a catch 22, and as Matthew Pryor notes, it’s a tough problem to address.

Matthew, who grew up in country Victoria, is recognised for his expertise in building and scaling agricultural technology businesses, from early prototyping, to capital raising, to exit through trade sale. He has a passion for the agri sector and has worked in the agritech space for many years, initially co-founding a business to use technology to manage scarce agricultural water in drought-hardened north-western Australia. Matthew also co-founded Australian agritech venture capital firm Tenacious Ventures and is a founding Board Member of The Australian AgriTech Association which aims to build a world class agritech sector through advocacy and collaborating in development activity intended to grow the Australian agritech ecosystem and simultaneously promoting Australia’s capability to international partners.

Having gained qualifications in computer science and having founded a tech company in the 1990s, Matthew moved to the birthplace of many technological innovations, Silicon Valley, California. Despite his success there, Matthew remarks that the experience was ‘a bit superficial and not making important impacts [socially or environmentally]’. With the desire to use new technologies to solve major challenges in the agri-sector – like getting water to livestock as efficiently as possible – Matthew returned to Australia to pursue a career in the agritech space, with a strong focus on water management and efficacy.

There are currently numerous water management tech products on the market, but as with any new technologies, there are obstacles to the large scale adoption of new technologies by farmers. When asked if this is due to the over-saturation (no pun intended) of the water management tech market, Matthew says ‘It is a contributor . . . When people make decisions, having too many choices can be off-putting’. But this isn’t the main issue. ‘It comes down to psychology, and the perceived risks versus the perceived benefits’. And with new, unknown tech, the perceived risks can be very high. ‘Then there is the financial and psychological cost to the farmer in trying something new’. So how do those developing new technologies make them worthwhile for farmers?

‘You have to work on the business model at the same time as developing your product. Lasting innovations that achieve scale do this. Thinking about the business model brings the supply chain into the frame. Think about the beneficiary separate to the user [the farmer]. The real beneficiaries are often people further down that chain [like retailers and consumers]. For farmers there is a direct economic cost in changing practices or products. Incentives [like government rebates] have to reward change, but they rarely stack up well against the large initial cost’.

Clearly this is a big issue, as it requires incentives to drive the adoption of new technologies, while providing enough benefit to the farmer and the rest of the supply chain. Who provides the incentives? How can the financial burden of new technologies be shared across the supply chain rather than resting entirely on the farmer? ‘Those are difficult questions which we have thought about a lot. A key factor is the right communications to keep conversations going and challenge people’s thinking. Groups like the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agritechnology (CEAT) and The Australian Agritech Association can help drive those conversations, while research organisations can create opportunities for industry to engage with end users and develop technologies that are fit for purpose’.

As the report notes, there is no straight forward resolution to barriers in technology adoption, but there are clear pathways to make adopting new technologies less daunting for farmers. ‘We are seeing effective irrigation technology being deployed in the marketplace today that supports farmers and the environment. What will accelerate the adoption of this technology is not more technology itself, but rather an evolution in how the technology is being positioned. This evolution will require thoughtful consideration of farmer psychology and the continued development of incentives and novel business models’. This will be best achieved through open conversations across the supply chain, end users, manufacturers and research bodies. While this is true of all aspects of agricultural practice, it is especially essential for water management, as water is an invaluable resource, which we have a responsibility to use and preserve as well as possible, not just for our own consumption, but for the benefit of future generations.

Obtain the full report: here

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