Soe Khaing – digitising the farmer experience in Myanmar
26.08.2021 Involved in BFH-HAFL research projects in Myanmar since 2017, Soe Khaing is a teacher at Yezin Agricultural University (YAU) and a master’s student at HAFL. He shares with us his experience and insights about studying abroad and working to digitise the farmer experience in Myanmar.
Soe Khaing’s first experience with the digital landscape for farmer applications was when he participated in collecting household assessment data in Myanmar several years ago. At that time, he considered the farmers who had access to a mobile phone to be very wealthy, but today almost all farmers in Myanmar have access. While the technology is accessible, the farmers still don’t always have the right skills to use the mobile applications on their phone, access the internet or write messages.
Soe Khaing’s master’s thesis focuses on the development of digital literacy among the farmer community and ensuring their access to knowledge. There are different types of farmer apps that provide not only agricultural information, such as weather, cultivation techniques, market prices, etc. but also enable farmers to communicate directly with agricultural technicians, traders, agri-shop owners and livestock experts. His hypothesis is that the more the farmers use the farmer mobile app, the more successful they will be at managing their farm and the higher will be their family income.
He embarked on studying this topic even before coming to Switzerland. In 2018 Soe Khaing worked in Myanmar together with the BFH-HAFL and Helvetas team on the Gulf of Mottama project as interpreter for a BFH-HAFL BSc student in International Agriculture. Thanks to the project, the farmers in that area had advanced access to mobile phone technology, as well as digital literacy training from the Helvetas team on site. Some of the data Soe Khaing and his colleagues collected from this group of farmers showed early on that farmers who had a mobile phone with farmer mobile phone app installed and knew how to use the app had higher yields and higher income. These insights led Soe Khaing to pursue this topic for his thesis. With the scholarship supported by the Helvetas project, Soe Khaing started his MSc studies at HAFL in August 2019.
Collecting the data for the thesis during the time of the pandemic and political instability – no easy feat
To collect the field data for his research, Soe Khaing needed to travel from the northern part of Myanmar to the south across three regions. After his arrival to Myanmar with a relief flight in August 2020 and the initial quarantine period, he had to wait for two months to get the clearances to travel within the country. Once he finally reached his research site, he faced new difficulties as the farmers did not always believe he was there for academic research and did not trust him to access their homes and speak to all family members. Having limited access to the farmers had some drawbacks. The male household heads knew all the answers to the production questions, but they would often forget the costs of their products: it was the women who managed the charges and pricing.
For his research, Soe Khaing interviewed farmers in two regions. However, because of the time the interview process was taking during the pandemic situation, he could only reach one region and he planned to conduct the interviews in the second region by phone and via Facebook. This was the time when the military coup began, and the phone and internet communication were cut off. Soe Khaing could also no longer travel to the second region because of the protests on the roads. He finally managed to get through to the farmers over the phone when connectivity was temporarily restored, but he still needed to process the data and do additional research.
As the political situation in the country deteriorated, Soe Khaing struggled to connect online for his lectures and complete his master’s study programme remotely. Since the BFH-HAFL student emails and learning materials are all hosted online outside of Myanmar, he couldn’t take the exams or dial in for lectures. He also couldn’t search academic literature or finalise his analysis for the thesis.
Despite the difficulties, Soe Khaing got back to Switzerland to continue to work on his thesis at BFH-HAFL. He looks forward to graduating from the programme in September 2021. The universities and schools in Myanmar were closed during the protests, and the pandemic and the military coup continue to affect the people, the youth and the farmers across the country, but Soe Khaing is optimistic: His hope is to soon be able to share what he learned at BFH-HAFL about sustainable agricultural practices and natural resources management with his students and the farmer community in his home country.