Farm Mechanization in Nepal: Challenges and Way Forward
There is a great irony in Nepal. Every year during the government’s annual Policies and Programmes debate in the parliament or the budgetary discussions, agriculture always retains the focal point, apparently never leaving the rostrum. The overall budget for agriculture and livestock development sector in FY 2019/20 (FY 2076/77) was NRs. 34.80 billion, which might seem miniscule compared to the NRs. 1.532 trillion federal budget, but take into account all the budgets of last ten or fifteen fiscal years, suddenly you realize the true scale of resources put forward and policies drafted for the betterment of agriculture and livestock sector . Everything is smooth on paper but bumpy in execution!
Although the contribution of agricultural sector to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been declining and is at 26.98% in 2019, the crop production and productivity have been increasing year-on-year . No one can underestimate the significance of agricultural sector to the national economy. Nepal’s main crop, paddy, is cardinal to the national economy so much so that the economy rises or falls based on the harvest. It has been stated that rice harvests account for up to 1% of Nepal’s annual economic growth rate . Although healthy monsoon is the main driver in growth in paddy productivity, adaptation of new and improved technologies also plays a vital role at the center of which lies the increasing trend towards farm mechanization.
Progression of farm mechanization in Nepal
Farm mechanization in Nepal could be categorized roughly into three periods: i) pre 1990s; ii) 1990s–2006: takeoff of tractor adoption rates in the Terai; and iii) 2006 and after: widespread growth of tractor adoption throughout the Terai, takeoff of motorized pumps in the Terai, and takeoff of power tillers and mini-tillers in the Hills .
Before 1990s, labour in Nepal was in abundance and agricultural sector employed about 90% of population. However agriculture was primarily subsistence farming with only 50% of the farm households selling the surplus crops or livestock to the market in 1995 . In 1981, the availability of farm power from animal was at 43% while availability of mechanical power was at 8%. By 1991, while mechanical power availability had more than doubled, it was still a fraction of animal power availability (15 percent and 39 percent, respectively) . Before the early 1990s, the share of farm households using tractors did not exceed 5 percent for the whole country, and was less than 10 percent even in the Terai .
- 1990s to 2006
The period between the 1990s and 2006 saw considerable growth in the adoption of tractors in parts of the Terai. For the Terai as a whole, the share of tractor-using farm households increased from 8 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2003. In particular, the percentage of farm households renting tractors via custom hiring services increased from 11 percent and 15 percent in 1995 in the Central and the Western regions of the Terai, respectively, to 39 percent and 56 percent in 2003 . This was observed largely due to the increase in draft animal while feed for livestocks saw a decline as sources of fodder including forest and rangeland, which supplied upto 70% of fodder had either remain on change or in most cases declined .
- 2006 and later
The time period in and around 2006, the labour force scarcity in agriculture was becoming more vivid. The share of working age population declined between 2003 and 2010, relative to the decline between 1995 and 2003, with an increasing share engaged in nonagricultural enterprises or wage work. This led to significant rise in adaptation of farm machineries to offset the decline in labour in the time period after 2006. The adaptation of pumps (motorized or manual) in Terai increased from 4% in 2003 to 14% in 2010 .
|Type of tractor||1975-79||1980-84||1985-89||1990-94||1995-99||2000-04||2005-09||2010-16|
Engineering Product Development
Engineering product development involves numerous steps and these steps are iterated so as to finetune the final product. Although the process of product development is specialized as per product, but I have tried to generalize in following steps: conceptualization, design, testing and marketing. The above four steps hold true for development of farm machineries as well. From an engineering perspective, I will try to explain each of the four steps while also discussing present scenario.
- Conceptualization Phase
Conceptualization involves forming a concept or idea of something. It is the most primitive form of any product. Conceptualization involves the pre-design steps such as problem identification, proposed solution to the problem, scope in market or market research, targeted consumers, economic and technical feasibilities. As an engineer it is vital to know your target market as it effects a lot in the design. What I have observed during my four-years Agricultural Engineering degree is we are not short of amazing ideas regarding mechanization, but we lack proper market research which mean ultimately our product could fail. Also a high-level of emphasis on mechanization of certain cash crops such as paddy, wheat and maize means other forms of agriculture such as fisheries, apiculture and livestock are overlooked and many indigenous crops ignored completely.
Different farming processes in Nepal are still labour-intensive. It holds true largely in the case of fruits and vegetable farming. Harvest of fruits such as mango and litchi are fully manual labour with a person climbing tree and moving across branches to harvest. Trees such as coconut and betel nuts (supari) could grow well above 30 feet in height and are completely vertical with no branches extending out of the main trunk. Moreover, thin trunk and sheer height of supari trees mean it sways even in a gentle wind. It might be surprising to many that both supari and coconut are manually harvested with sickle by climbing trees despite the risks associated.
In both of above cases, a simple effective innovation could drastically increase the efficiency of harvest and also reduce the post-harvest loss. For mango and litchi harvest a rod-mounted fruit picker with a cutting tool and collection compartment (eg: bag, basket, etc.) might be an effective alternative option and are available in markets as well. What is unavailable though is a harvesting tool or machine for supari. A telescopic rod with a cutting tool at the tip might work fine for the task. The rod must be firmly supported on the ground with a stand. The cutting tool at the tip of the rod could be operated by two sets of hand-operated gear mechanism – one each for the two degrees of freedom of the cutting tool: a circular cutting arc and a “to and fro motion” in and out of rod. That is just my concept though!
There lies an ample room for innovation in value-addition of common agricultural commodities. One area that particularly catches my interest is chhurpi production. No any steps in churpi production is mechanized and mechanization could significantly increase efficiency of production from days to hours. Processes such as drying of buttery milk and cutting of lumps into small pieces could be quickened using machines.
There are many crops which are indigenous to Nepal such as Jurmli Marsi variety of rice and cardamom which are cultivated in significant amount but are yet to see significant technological advancement in their cultivation right from seeding/plantation to post-harvest operations. Cardamom, until a few years ago used to be exported without any post-harvest processing. Although that has changed now, overall use of machines and advanced tools in cardamom is still low. Indigenous crops being endemic to Nepal are valuable and could be value-added to sale as luxury food products within Nepal or internationally. Proper research into indigenous crops so as to generate adequate data for development of machineries is a required to commercially cultivate endemic crops.
- Design Phase
The next step in product development after conceptualization is the design phase. It should be noted that not all concepts survive till the design phase. CAD software are used in initial design and drafting of tools and machines. The final design is physically replicated from CAD model and serves as prototype. Various factors effect the design of farm machineries from landholding, power source to gender and demography of the users.
Prime factor affecting the design is the small landholding of farmers. It can be considered a major hindrance in mechanization and commercialization of agriculture as well. Average landholding in Nepal lies at 0.7 hectares (ha) per household (HHs) with 52% of the total agricultural HHs operate on less than 0.5 ha per HHs. Similarly, 9.3% of landholdings is below 0.1 ha per HHs . In Terai where tractors through custom hiring is easily available, even small landholders prefer 4-wheel tractors over 2-wheel tractors or mini tillers. However, in the mid-hills and hilly regions, mini tillers are commonly adopted because of their light weight, steep slopes and terrace farming being more common. While designing a farm machinery, the landholding size needs to be considered.
Outmigration of rural men to urban centers and to foreign countries has resulted in women being in charge of house and farm. This has resulted in feminization of agriculture. Female-headed HHs have increased from 16% in 2001 to 31.3% in 2016 . The percentage of women working in agriculture is 75% in 2019 . Also, 61.3% of women work in subsistence agricultural production and processing as compared to 47.2% of men . Male outmigration is such a serious challenge to agriculture because it leads to changes in farming practices, as increasing number of women left behind to manage the farms choose to adopt less labour-intensive crops, reduce the diversity of crops they grow and even abandon agricultural land . Added with household chores, it is very challenging for a woman to continue agricultural practice as previous. The key to solving the problem lies in better market access for women. However, female-centric design philosophies is a must to motivate more women to use machineries for agriculture. This is in contrast to present scenario where male-centric design approaches are used more often.
The third and important factor is design is the power source. Unlike in the more developed agricultural countries where specialized machines are used for separate task in a commercial farm, low purchasing capacity and limited space for farm shed often results in design of farm machineries which could derive its power from the tractor engine. Power Take-off or PTO shaft of tractor is used to drive equipment such as rotavator, sprayer and even irrigation pumps. In designing farm machineries for Nepalese farmers, tractor-mounted or tractor-driven equipment shall be considered. For stationery machines such as corn-sheller, AC-powered motor is a preferred option.
- Testing Phase
Once any farm machineries have been designed and prototyped, they undergo testing. Testing are usually carried out by government agency or other independent testing facilities. Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute (IASRI) defines the main objective of farm machinery testing as to assess functional suitability and performance characteristics under different agro-climatic conditions so as to serve a basis to decide the type of machinery best suited for local and national conditions and also help farmers determine the comparative performance of machinery available in the market. Testing also helps to verify whether the specifications provided by the manufacturers are true while also providing data to manufacturer which will help better design.
Farm machinery testing involves the determination of functional performance characteristics of machine; power requirement of a particular component of whole machine; durability; wear testing of some of soil engaging tools; external forces such as soil forces acting on soil engaging tools; and stresses developed in different parts of machine due to static or dynamic loading.
Testing of machinery is done on the basis of test codes. Different countries such as USA, UK, India and so on have their own national code while many other countries use OCED code and FAO code. Nepal primarily uses ANTAM and RNAM test codes while FAO test code could also be used. ANTAM test code is promoted by United Nations – Center for Sustainable Agricultural Mechanization (UN-CSAM) and is used by many countries in Asia and Pacific region. However, the major constraint in Nepal is lack of adequate testing facility. Although Agricultural Machinery Testing and Research Center (AMTRC) has been established under Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) in Nawalpur, Sarlahi but the center is still in its infancy lacking skilled manpower and complete set of technical equipment. This has hindered the testing of farm machinery in Nepal.
Lack of testing has its own negative consequences to Nepalese agriculture. Almost all of the machineries are imported, largely from India. There is always a room for doubt that any machinery designed for a foreign agro-climatic condition might not be perfectly suitable for our conditions. Without any specifications or recommendations issued by trusted national testing body, farmers and potential buyers would always struggle to select the right type of equipment from wide range that is available in the market. Certification of testing issued by authorized body is required to export machineries manufactured in Nepal to foreign countries. Furthermore, adequate testing facilities would also boost the production quality of local manufacturers and help to check and balance the quality of machinery import.
- Marketing Phase
The last phase in product design is marketing. By marketing I mean the overall process of promotion selling the product to consumers and service and maintenance. As stated earlier, the majority of farm landholding per HHs in Nepal is miniscule and the fragmentation of agricultural land is on the rise. For small landholding farmers purchase of a farm machinery for one’s use only might not be a justifiable investment as the chances of machine not operating year-round is a more likely scenario. In such case, joint or community ownership of farm machinery should be promoted either by local or provincial governments.
Nepal Agriculture Machinery Entrepreneurs Association (NAMEA) and the enterprises associated with it have an important role to play in educating farmers regarding mechanization. Also, the enterprises shall work unified in servicing and maintenance of farm implements. As machinery enterprises are centered in urban and semi-urban areas, the rural farmers and operators might find it difficult to repair and service in case of breakdown and failure. Such difficulties could be limited by a close coordination between farmers’ cooperatives or associations, local bodies and enterprises. A bi-weekly or monthly service camps in rural locations could be beneficial both for farmers and enterprise.
Moving forward to achieve the goal of complete mechanization, the role custom hiring services (CHS) could play is immense. Any enterprise which leases farm equipments to farmers is termed CHS. I see the potential of CHS as solving the current unemployment crisis observed among agricultural engineering graduates as CHS perfectly fits into the forte of an agricultural engineer while it helps next generation of graduates to diverse into entrepreneurship. The provincial government could subsidize such businesses and create a favourable path for CHS to operate.
The role engineers and engineering profession as a whole could play in farm mechanization is diverse. An engineer could act as a thinker to identify the problems, a dreamer to promulgate a utopian solution, a designer to model and prototype the solution, a researcher to skillfully test the prototype, an extension agent to reach to farmers explaining the technology and an entrepreneur offering custom hiring services to the farmers.
Shasank Pokharel is a freelance content writer interested in agricultural and technology.
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