By Stefan Struik
Many farmers of diary farms in the Netherlands, USA and Canada are no longer getting up at dawn to attach the milking machine to their cows. They have milk robots which are doing the job. In many cases the cow will walk herself to the robot when she feels it is time to get milked.
Diary farms are not the only ones where robotics have made farm life easier, more efficient, and above all cheaper. Robotic initiatives are popping up everywhere for all types of farms. From robot turtles for fish farms in Estonia and Norway to robotic tea harvesters in Japan.
WHERE ARE THE CACAOBOTS?
But there is still no smart farming in sight for cocoa (which I prefer to write as 'cacao'). In the case of cacao almost nothing has changed for the past 400 years. Weeding, pruning, harvesting, opening the pods, fermenting and drying; all is still done manually. So far no attempts have been made to develop so called 'cocoabots'.
IVORY COAST DANGER
Why has there not yet been any Artificial Intelligence development in cacao. By the way: I am using the terms AI and robotics alternately because self-learning AI appears to be indispensable for the development of farming robotics.
Undoubtedly this has to do with the regions where cacao grows: mostly in low-wage countries. But a danger is looming: 40-45% of all cacao yield comes from one country: Ivory Coast. The current situation in this 'Gold Coast' country keeps cacao prices low and farmers poor. Not the market, but the government determines what price the farmer will get for a kilo cacao: $1.80 (November 2020). At the same time open market prices for big buyers are fluctuating between $2.25 and $3 in the last six months of 2020. There exists a strange power of balance and a dangerous interdependence between the government of Ivory Coast (and to a lesser extend Ghana) and the big cacao buyers. They need each other.
But this concentration on the cacao supply side is not without dangers. Political unrest or climatic changes will directly have a disastrous effect on the total world cocoa production.
Looking at the cacao market as a whole, it could be wise to diversify production. But hardly any country can produce cocoa at such extremely low prices. The Ivory Coast prices are attractive enough for big buyers to withstand the public outcry about child slavery and other poor working conditions. But to ask more governments of cacao producing countries to follow the path of Ivory Coast and to control farmer prices, is a no-go. It will - rightfully so - provoke even greater consumer outrage. Not only in Europe and America, but also among the increasingly environmentally conscious Asian consumers.
But is there a way out? How to get less dependent on Ivory Coast while preventing cocoa prices from soaring? And even better: while at the same time giving farmers a better, more sustainable income? The answer lies within Artificial Intelligence and robotics.
ADVANTAGES OF CACAOBOTS
So, why should we even think about introducing robotics in cacao farming? What makes them so suitable for cacao farming? There are multiple reasons:
Robots are way more productive. If I myself look at the speed of the workers in Cambodia, then I can easily predict with utmost certainty that a cacaobot would be far more productive. And robots could in theory (or in practice) work 24 hours per day. They won't stop working unless you turn them off. If we follow the trend of vertical farming start-ups where AI robots create a 400 times higher output, then you can imagine the possibilities of higher yield in cacao farming as well.
More accurate, no mistakes
Robots are more accurate, and with their self-learning capacity, they will become better and even more accurate minute by minute. There is no end to their learning-curve. And whatever they have learned, you can implant this knowledge directly into the next robot. Try to do this with new staff or new workers. It will take them weeks or longer to learn while making mistakes during this learning process. Robots don't make mistakes unless they were wrongly programmed.
Reducing waste and more environment friendly
Because robots can be far more precise, they reduce the amount of whatever they need to use. When they are used for irrigation they are far more effective and precise than for instance drip lines. There are some pesticide robots on the market already, which are reducing the amount of sprayed pesticides with 90%. So, for non-organic farms they are also far more environment-friendly. A cacaobot can use sensors to measure each tree to see how it is doing. This enables the robot to recognize looming diseases much quicker than a human.
Robots are the ultimate time-savers, not only because they are more efficient and effective, but also because they are fast. They are not taking breaks, they are not getting tired.
Due to their self-learning capacities, I can't think of any task in cacao farming that a cacaobot could not perform. They can safely weed between the trees; they can learn which cacao pod is ripe to pick and which is not; they can prune; they can irrigate the exact amount of water needed; they can detect diseases before they get the chance to cause harm; they can apply a very precise amount of (organic) fertiliser; they can cut open the cacao pods and remove the wet beans; and they can monitor the fermenting and drying process.
Of course it isn't all champagne and caviar. There could be some reasons why cacao farmers should not step up to the robot plate.
Agriculture in Japan, Canada, Russia, the USA and many European countries is gravely suffering because of an aging population and a shortage of experienced farmers. Cacao farming on the other hand takes place in countries where this is not a big issue. That is to say: at the moment. The average age of the population in the two most productive cacao countries, Ghana and Ivory Coast is roughly 20, and in other 'young' cacao countries like Ecuador, Philippines, India and Cambodia around 27. And the average wage in these countries are still low as well. But this situation will not last forever. The rocketing growth of the world population is slowing down while more masses are climbing out of poverty up to lower middle class levels. Relying on young and cheap labor will bite us all in the tail on the long term.
There are some self-sustaining robots, fully operating on solar power. But still most robots need to get charged. And especially farms in poor rural areas are not always equipped with electricity.
What happens when for instance an AI robot breaks down at our cacao farm in BuSra, Cambodia? The nearest airport and main town (Phnom Penh) is seven hours driving. And you don't send a cacaobot to the local repair shop. Re-programming a robot, especially an AI robot requires expertise. It is probably do-able to repair and check software from a distance through a wifi connection but for the hardware you better leave the job to the skilled expert.
Not cheap but also not expensive
Robots don't come cheap. But on the other hand they will save a lot of money in salaries and other expenses due to their highly efficient performance and they can battle diseases before they devastate entire farms. On the longer run, cacao bots will definitely become cheaper. They will follow the price development of robotic systems in the automotive industry. In the early days these robots were crazy expensive. Now there are fully equipped robot arms available for less than $30,000.
The company who will move first with cacao bots will be the winner. Hooking up with the tremendous collected knowledge by scientists on robotics by research institutes like the WUR (Wageningen University Research) is the best way to move forward. The future for cacao farming lies in robotics. It is inevitable. With a world population, reaching 9 billion in the next 15 years, and more and more people moving from poor to lower middle classes, there will be a continuously growing demand for cacao and chocolate, while at the same time less farmers will be prepared to work on cacao farms for low wages. The game is on.