Cheng Biao and his team of technology experts beat traditional strawberry farmers handily in a precision farming contest organized by Pinduoduo.
But the technology team developed a newfound respect for the growers as they learned about the practical problems faced by smallholder farmers. The interactions also helped Cheng and his researchers refine their own approach to developing agritech that smallholder farmers can use.
“In agriculture, traditional farmers distrust data scientists, thinking they are flashy yet useless; data scientists also look down upon farmers, thinking they are too old-fashioned,” Cheng said. “Through this competition, we realized the importance of combining both sides’ advantages and working together.”
This meeting of minds is one of the key outcomes that Pinduoduo, which operates a digital platform connecting millions of farmers and consumers, is hoping to achieve through its annual Smart Agriculture Competition. By creating more opportunities for traditional farmers and agricultural scientists to interact and learn from each other, Pinduoduo hopes to promote greater understanding and improve the design and adoption of agritech.
“Our global agri-food systems need innovative solutions to sustainably nourish people while nurturing our planet,” said Carlos Watson, FAO representative to China. “The Smart Agriculture Competition provides a unique platform for engaging young people, technologists, innovators, private sector and research institutes together, to incubate tailor-made practical solutions of addressing the real-life problems faced by smallholder farmers.”
Since its founding in 2015, Pinduoduo has made agriculture a key pillar of its corporate mission. The company has adopted a “Tech for Agri” approach centered on increasing market accessibility, improving digital inclusion and literacy, and fostering innovation as key enablers for agricultural modernization.
Besides making it easier for farmers to sell their produce through e-commerce, Pinduoduo is also investing in promoting the development of cost-effective and easy-to-use agricultural technology that can boost productivity and environmental sustainability. The Smart Agriculture Competition is part of these efforts to improve and modernize the agriculture industry and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Now in its third year, Pinduoduo organizes the Smart Agriculture Competition together with China Agricultural University and Zhejiang University. The competition also has technical support from the UN FAO Representation in China and Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
The current edition of the competition involves a vertical farming challenge where participants will grow lettuce in shipping containers, employing a combination of computer data science, internet of things technology, and agronomic knowledge. Through the contest, the organizers and participating teams can develop new knowledge of vertical farming, a relatively new form of controlled environment agriculture that is gaining popularity as a potential solution for boosting agricultural productivity while minimizing pollution and resource use.
Last year’s winning team, TomaGrow, developed an easy-to-use greenhouse management model that integrates algorithms and sensors, and which can be used by farmers without special training. It was able to go one step further in developing a disease prediction model that gave farmers a one-week window to intervene and prevent loss.
“The event offers a good opportunity for young scientists to understand whom the technology is being developed for,” said He Yong, Dean of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science College of Zhejiang University, one of the judges of the competition. “This will broaden their horizon and provide value insights for their future work and research.”