TechAgri Expo 2017’s promises and lapses

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Students at the TechAgri Expo 2017. Photo by J Morris/UWIFFA via Flickr.

Adapted and expanded by the author from a post on Knowprose.com.

Given my return to Trinidad and Tobago and the fact that I own agricultural land in Trinidad and Tobago, I went to the UWI TechAgri Expo armed with my decades of experience as a software engineer, years of experience dealing with land, and my own trials and tribulations at growing things. I had good counsel on the latter from established farmers in Trinidad and Tobago, but I am not an expert as much as an experimenter at this point.

I’m looking at potentials so that I can put together my own business plan, if viable, not for getting a loan but for myself – as a business plan should be done. With my experience, this expo should suit my needs.

In the broad strokes the UWI TechAgri Expo was worthwhile in that it was bustling with activity, and at the booths I heard many a question being fielded. One person I know remarked that it was more like a bazaar in that people were selling things – I see that as a factor of any expo to get foot traffic. Another criticism is that the students didn’t have all the answers to the questions asked, but a quick analysis of that criticism reveals an unrealistic expectation in the critic. They are students, after all. Someone said that it could have been held inside, but then, what of all the plants? So, personally, I dismissed a lot of the criticisms.

The farming equipment was plainly visible. Children packed into the tractors for photo opportunities, and every now and then people would inquire about prices. Plants galore – the savannah was alive with plants, and there were many people leaving with plants.I bumped into the tent where they had information on the apps – things like Maps.tt I would find an immediate benefit from, and their land suitability app looks promising.

The AgriDiagnose Mobile App also looked very useful. The data from NAMDEVCO could be more useful, but in it’s present forms it’s not too useful for people planning to do things – more on that later. I was permitted a brief chat with Dr. Bernard, talking about the technology aspects, about the applications, and a little about the short term future.

Moving on, I came across rabbits at the UWI Faculty of Food and Agriculture University Field Station – dealing with academia must be a preparation for long German – and I saw rabbits and agouti. There were signs about entrepreneurship behind these creatures imprisoned in their cages, so I asked around about the market for them. They had no idea. They were students, so I wouldn’t expect them to have all the answers – but this teases at a larger problem: metrics.

Continuing my walk, I had some interesting conversations with some international folk, a few criticisms from staff about getting interdepartmental assistance for some things. A few people knew me and the criticisms were more specific, but I know the unpleasant frustration of academic silos.

Bureaucracies that divide have a hard time putting things back together, much as de Tocqueville noted that the splitting of land into smaller portions made it nearly impossible to put them back together.

Try Cafe Vega. They had a stall. I met Dr. Floyd Homer, and we talked about beans and all sorts of things. How could I pass up a cup of local coffee? Good stuff, and I think more people should know about their coffee. The word is other ‘local’ coffee is actually importing at this time, something I heard from multiple sources, but I haven’t been able to confirm anything.

I came across a business that was marketing rabbit meat. So I spoke with them about the market for rabbit meat and rabbits in general, and as expected, it wasn’t exactly a high demand market. It’s not as if I see ‘rabbit roti’ on the roti shop walls. It’s more of an exotic market, and more for pets than pots.

Completely understandable and expected, so I thanked the lady for her candor and moved on, wondering why rabbit was being pushed as ‘something to do to make money’. Or do I misunderstand the presence of the long eared and short tailed furry animals? How do we judge whether rabbit farms are a success or failure?

How do we judge any of this to be a success or failure?The rest of the expo was as informative to me on aquaculture, agriculture, potential markets. I was finding holes such as how to judge success and failure.

The ADB

The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) was interesting, though I’m not sure that it was all accurate. They advertise great interest rates for agricultural and aquaculture projects, but when I spoke about the specifics of things I was looking at doing, I asked about whether I should split some land off for collateral and repeatedly told I didn’t need to do that. That seems peculiar.


Established farmers I know have criticized the ADB in that while their interest rates seem low, with all the fees one ends up paying, it’s effectively the same as banks with higher advertised interest rates. An after discussion with someone who knows more about interests rates revealed the 3-5% was effectively around 8-9%, but that advertised bank rates at 8% were closer to 14% in reality.

So, the ADB didn’t really sell me on anything in the end.

The NAMDEVCO Data

The thing that jumped out at me most was market data, probably because I’m mentally preparing a business plan.  What’s published is Open Data – it’s one of the founding principles, it seems, but it’s not as open as you would think in that it’s scattered and lacks information on how it was collected. In fact, it’s why this entire article is so late – I dove into the data.

If you take a look at the data available from NAMDEVCO, it gives you averages of monthly data over the years (starting in December 2016), but it doesn’t show you volatility. It is lacking, and part of that may be that NAMDEVCO simply wasn’t designed for it – or the people who want to do it are getting crushed by the gears of bureaucracy (been there, done that), or it simply hasn’t entered into people’s minds.

Students at the TechAgri Expo 2017. Photo by J Morris/UWIFFA via Flickr. Click to enlarge.

I’ve spoken to farmers. One successful farmer revealed his success one time with cabbage, being able to buy a car for cash after reaping one cabbage crop. That’s an outlier. So there is volatility in these markets that farmers have to be able to plan for.

Granted, the app that shows the immediate prices is good, but if you’re getting into a market, you want more data. It is there at the link, but it has to be hand typed in from the images in the monthly PDFs to get what you want… when I tried the contact link on their website, I was greeted by a configuration error. So I can’t really tell them about the error, now can I? Try it. Maybe they’ll fix it. Let us know.

To use the data, I initially pulled the monthly data out of their spreadsheet workbooks and combined it into a sheet, allowing me to check volatility over the markets based on the average prices presented (using a standard deviation calculation). This was interesting: Cabbage had the lowest market volatility, followed by Callaloo Bush (open and rolled).

The highest volatility was seen with hot peppers, where the standard deviation from the average across the almost 10 year period was $164. That’s a fair amount of fluctuation for a 40 lb bag of hot peppers; other crops had significant fluctuations as well – dry coconut and citrus fluctuated roughly 33% as much.

This begs questions. Sure, we can explain it as supply and demand, but the averages don’t tell us the volume of items bought and sold. So I dug down at Data.tt and found some of the daily averages and was less than pleased to find that the daily averages weren’t done for every day of the month, and that the monthly averages were less than ideal.

No matter. We could tie the data to other things, like weather conditions if we had that data – like the average temperature in Trinidad and Tobago, or the average rainfall, to assess a general idea of crop conditions for the data on hand.

But that’s not to be found. And how much went to the export market? Again, not to be found.
So, while the market information is valuable to farmers when they are reaping, we have insufficient data for planning – something that we could be doing, and which in my opinion we should be doing if we want to demonstrate that we are taking agriculture and other things seriously in Trinidad and Tobago.

Metrics. We need better metrics.

Closing

In all, I think my only real criticism of the TechAgri Expo is that I wish it were more helpful to me – but that’s not so much on them. I’m a demanding person when it comes to information, and I know how to deal with Big Data – something lacking around Trinidad and Tobago, really, given I did all of what I did in spreadsheets – and my criticism is more of an identification of opportunities for myself and others.

There is further analysis that can be done, and there are opportunities that you can find… if you have the gift of seeing what doesn’t exist yet.

There’s plenty that doesn’t exist yet – for example, defining success.

Taran Rampersad

Taran Rampersad has over three decades of experience working with technology, the majority of which was as a software engineer. He is a published author on virtual worlds and was part of the team of writers at WorldChanging.com that won the Utne Award.

He is an outspoken advocate of simplifying processes and bending technology’s use to society’s needs. 

His volunteer work related to technology and disasters has been mentioned by the media (BBC), and is one of the plank-owners of combining culture with ICT in the Caribbean (ICT) through CARDICIS and has volunteered time towards those ends.

As an amateur photographer, he has been published in educational books, magazines, websites and NASA’s ‘Sensing The Planet’.

He presently is doing personal land management, agricultural, writing and technology projects and is focusing on agriculture and land management.

A rare sight in cities, you’ll most likely find him offroad somewhere on a hill in his 4×4 writing or taking pictures.  You can contact him via email.