A farmer, a tractor and a pandemic
How Myanmar’s agricultural sector is shifting towards mechanization
16th November 2020, Pakkoku, Magway, Myanmar
When it comes to rural farming, whether it’s the digital age of drones or the olden Middle Ages, the importance of human labor still stands to this day. According to research conducted by Grow Asia as of 2020, despite a variety of innovative equipment such as drones, having replaced labor at scale in developed markets, the shift towards mechanization has rather been slow in Asia. Today in Myanmar, the agriculture sector accounts for 22 percent of GDP and 38 percent of employment. Although it has shown resilience against the effects of COVID19, with only 6 percent of agricultural firms closing, field evidence presented by various agencies at the 35th FAO (Asia Pacific Regional Conference of Food and Agriculture Organization) held in Bhutan highlighted the vulnerability of rural livelihoods among Myanmar’s farmers.
FAO’s Regional Assessment suggests that “the pandemic may accelerate the trends towards more mechanization, which will increase labor productivity but will also require investments in improved social protection and safety net programs.”
Indeed, social protection programs are required. In response to a second wave of the coronavirus spreading across the country, Myanmar’s had its borders with neighboring countries closed off and locked down to suppress infections. One consequence of this has been that of migrant workers’ lives. Out of work and options, migrant workers that come from rural villages and leave to work across borders have been hit hard, forcing most to return home for refuge. Even then, some had yet another issue to deal with. Coming out of quarantine and when workers return home, some had to deal with discrimination. Workers are prone to accusations and false rumors of being infected as they were once working abroad.
However, farmers and workers alike may have something to look forward to…
Tun Yat (which means “tilling” in Burmese), an agri-tech startup that rents agricultural machinery to farmers through an online platform, in collaboration with The Paung Sie Facility, an organization that aims to build and strengthen social cohesion in Myanmar, came up with a variety of re-development programs aimed at raising the capacity of returning migrant workers. Their purpose? — To encourage the social cohesion of locals and migrant workers and eliminate any stereotypes and biases. Some ongoing programs include Food Preparation and Safety training in Hinthada of the Ayerwaddy Region, Bookkeeping and Finance, and Mechanical Operator training taking place in Pakkoku, Magway Region. These programs, while providing workers with soft skills such as communication and cooperation in the workplace, also give workers a chance to learn specific skills and gain confidence in potential, now more localized livelihood back in their villages and township areas.
Taking a closer look at the “Mechanical Operator Training”, it takes place in the city of Pakkoku, Magway Region, and is brought to action by Tun Yat with the support of its partner John Deere, a multinational corporation that focuses on food security and land intensification and the role mechanization can play to address this across South East Asia, Africa, and many other markets. Being a major rice market of Upper Myanmar, Pakkoku is well known for its farms and agricultural sector, where you can also find tobacco traders, cotton weavers, and Thanakha producers (a traditional cosmetic paste made from sandalwood ground bark). At the site of the training itself, workers learn practically, operating, and fixing parts of tractors, as well as engage in discussions and presentations. The training helps Tun Yat and its partners provide on-field service, when often in remote areas, mechanics are hard to come by. With the prospect of mechanization becoming an important yield and income driver in the agricultural sector as FAO states, farmers must learn to maintain and operate farm machinery to gain better and more efficient farming.
The trainees themselves voiced their opinions as well. Maung Maung Soe, a Pakkoku local, and before attending Tun Yat and Paung Sie’s program was a migrant worker in Singapore — “When I returned home, I had a very hard time finding a job here. Plus, it was not easy being quarantined as I couldn’t be with my family. After I spent my time being quarantined at a local government school compound, I heard of this program from Tun Yat and because I come from a family of farmers, I chose the tractor operating training out of the four choices. It truly is interesting and the experience is worth the far distance I have to travel from my home to attend this. Nowadays, farming requires heavy machinery to be efficient so this opportunity is very beneficial for farmers like us.”
When asked how he, as a migrant worker who was quarantined, felt about working with other locals he had this to say —
“Enjoyable. During my time spent here, I’ve had the chance to know and befriend some people. It’s all fun.”
At the end of each program, the workers who show ambition during the training process get the chance to be practical with what they have learned. Tun Yat and its partners offer job opportunities to those trainees, not requiring them to go searching for a job. For the moment, as Myanmar seeks to gradually mechanize its agricultural sector during a worldwide pandemic, development programs such as this pose a great value to farmers and workers. Ultimately, they help facilitate a transition back from migrant work, provide a glimmer of hope for youth thinking on how to return to village and farm life, and create a livelihood that its meaningful and coherent for them and their fellow villagers.
Nay Ye’ Lin, Content Writer, Tun Yat