Looking to the future: developing digital skills in the Republic of Moldova, with the help of the EU

02-07-2021

When Ion Tașcă goes to his day job in Chisinau, he can see how his fields are being cultivated in Hîncești District, the level of soil irrigation and what the workers still have to do that day, all with the help of an application.

Ion Tașcă received his higher education in Romania, but after graduating from university, he returned home to create “something beautiful” in the Republic of Moldova. Ion and his father took up agriculture “with a view into the future”. Digital technologies are changing this traditional sector of the economy, and farmers like Ion are taking full advantage of these new tools.

Ciuciuleni village in the Hîncești District is located just 55 km from Chisinau. It is an ordinary village, home to just over 4,000 people. Five years ago, there were only about 300 computers in the entire village. However, today Ion Tașcă and his family are gradually developing a business here, which is almost entirely managed through mobile applications.

Traditions and the future

Ion was familiar with agriculture since his childhood. He spent every summer in Ciuciuleni, his parents’ native village.

“My grandfather was a combine operator, he worked on a tractor. Since childhood, I have seen all this agricultural equipment and played with it. It was very interesting for me,” Ion recalls.

When he grew up, he went to study in Romania to become a veterinarian. But, unlike many of his fellow-countrymen, he decided to come back home after receiving his diploma. “My wife-to-be at the time and I wanted to create something beautiful at home. That is where our parents, friends and relatives lived. And we did not want to leave our homeland,” says Ion.

Ion returned to Moldova in 2016 and two years later, he opened his first enterprise with his father. Using all their savings, they registered the Agro Vet Consulting company, bought the first tractor, several hectares of land, and began sowing wheat and planting grapes in their native Ciuciuleni. However, they immediately decided that the old-fashioned way to farm was impossible. While continuing to work as a veterinarian on a farm near Chisinau, Ion began to develop and digitalise the family farm.

“We realised that if everything was done traditionally, it meant we would have to be there 100% of the time. But there is no future in this. And from my main profession, I see that we have to use something new. Innovation brings benefits,” says Ion.

Ion felt the need for electronic assistants immediately. His father had lived in the village since childhood and knew all the fields by heart. But for Ion it was more difficult to navigate the fields after a long absence. It was hard to understand and remember where things were, and which crops were growing. So, the digitalisation began with the following: the farm acquired its own electronic map with satellite imagery in the Cropio electronic system.

“Now I can see all the fields from above, both from my computer and from my mobile phone. I can imagine how to combine individual plots, what to grow and on which plot of land,” says Ion, showing his land on his mobile screen.

Now, using the same application, the farmer can see all his equipment, where it is located, on which route it was taken, and how much fuel it has spent.

“In the evening, you can even make a simulation and see how the equipment moved all day. At first, when I was young, it all looked like an interesting game, a strategy to me. But it really works,” explains Ion. He adds that while the technology is very convenient for small farms like his own, it is simply indispensable on large plantations.

From hobby to business

According to Ion, it is not only and not so much about the "surveillance" or control over workers. Such applications help to organise work better and make the farm more productive.

“Everything can be controlled remotely, and the process can be optimised. After all, one must always be aware of what is happening, how much fuel is used, whether something is broken. This allows you to calculate costs, build a work plan, distribute fertilisers,” says the farmer.

Introducing electronic systems was not easy at first. Ion says the workers were initially suspicious. He had to explain to them that the systems were not there to “keep track of them”, but to understand the situation in general.

“In business, we need to clearly understand how much we invest and how much we get. Otherwise, it is not a business, but a hobby. You need to understand how many hectares are cultivated and how quickly, how much fuel is spent. Only then you can see whether there is profitability or not,” explains Ion.

Gradually, what started out as a weekend hobby for Ion and his family turned into a full-fledged business. Now the farm has more than 100 hectares of fields in different parts of Ciuciuleni. They grow wheat, corn, oats, sunflowers, grapes, which are sold to companies for processing directly from the fields. Three tractors and a combine can be tracked in the mobile application, like in a computer game.

Ion still works as a veterinarian in Chisinau, and only goes to Ciuciuleni every two or three days. The business remains family-owned: the farmer's father is also involved in all the innovations that his son introduces.

“I will put it this way: he is not only happy, he even wants to do more. He understands that we cannot move forward without the new technologies,” says Ion.

Remote control

With a focus on “digital economy”, Ion almost immediately began to participate in various training projects for business. This is how he joined the Digital Upgrade project, which was implemented by Tekwill, together with the Organisation for Small and Medium Size Enterprise Sector Development (ODIMM) and its SME Digitisation Support Tool, a programme launched in June 2020 and co-funded by the European Union.

While most entrepreneurs took the courses to understand how to sell their products online, Ion decided to improve farm productivity and get even more accurate remote control with the help of digital technologies.

Maria Nemchuk, a start-up ecosystem development specialist at Start-up Moldova, said that many partner organisations had to quickly adjust their plans due to the pandemic: digitalisation was accelerated. At the same time, training seminars and grants within the framework of Digital Upgrade were allocated strictly at the request of the entrepreneurs themselves. The consultants helped them to find exactly what the business needed at the time.

According to Ion, Moldova has several weather stations in different parts of the country. Their forecast is accurate only within a certain radius. Not so long ago, Ion and his father installed their own small weather station on their fields. It collects information directly from the soil that farmers cultivate.

Thanks to Digital Upgrade, the station is now connected to the special mobile application called “Field Climate”. “You can monitor the amount of precipitation, wind speed, humidity. This is all very important. For example, if there is a strong wind, it makes no sense to spray the fields, as everything will be blown away. The moisture levels determine which crops can be sown right now,” explains Ion.

The application helps to optimise even the use of fertilisers and prevent plant diseases. So, it predicts diseases that are possible under certain climatic factors, humidity, temperature and wind. Farmers can spray crops in advance in order not to lose the harvest.

“All this helps to predict, use resources rationally, and prevent losses. This is the only way to reach the European level of agricultural work,” says Ion.

Modern technologies also help to be more environmentally friendly. “The earth does not endure everything; you need to be careful with it. When certain substances are used more often than necessary, it affects the soil first and then our health,” explains Ion. The application allows you to better plan the distribution of fertilisers, you can see in which areas there are problems and they need more, and where you can do without them.

“I would like to work not only for the present day, but also to leave something beautiful for the children,” he believes.

The pandemic’s new challenge

Business digitalisation is taking place gradually, not only in Moldova. “Digitalisation today is one of the main challenges faced by small and medium-sized businesses not only in Moldova, but throughout Europe,” says Māra Jākobsone, the representative of the EU4Digital Facility, a major European Union initiative to develop the digital economy and society across the Eastern Partnership region.

Digital skills are one of the six priority areas for EU4Digital, and the programme supports the implementation of digital skills strategies in Moldova, helping the government to evaluate and forecast gaps in digital skills, defining a digital competencies framework for small businesses, and supporting the creation of a national skills and jobs coalition, coordinated by the Moldova ICT association – ATIC, which will help stakeholders (government, business, NGOs, academia) to coordinate the development of digital skills.

Jākobsone emphasises that embracing digital technology not only helps to find new customers, but also to make businesses of almost any type more efficient.

However, even in the EU, only 12% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) use digital data analysis in their work, and only 17% use cloud storage, according to the European Digital Economy and Society Index - 2020.

Jākobsone believes that the systematic strategy for supporting SMEs, developed at the initiative of the EU4Digital project, will help enterprises fill these gaps and rise to a new level.

The Director General of ODIMM, Yuliya Kostin, emphasises that over the year of the pandemic and quarantine, the need to develop in the digital field has become even more obvious. “For example, it turned out that 75% of small and medium-sized businesses do not even have websites,” said Kostin.

The Digital Upgrade programme has become a lifeline for many entrepreneurs, she said. Thanks to the support of the European Union and a partnership with Tekwill and Start-up Moldova, dozens of companies received the support they needed.

Next steps

As Ion admits, the year of the pandemic turned out to be difficult for the farmers: wheat and corn were practically lost. They had to take out loans and put off some investments.

“But all businesses are risky, it is normal. Of course, it is impossible to separate politics from business completely because everything is interconnected. But you have to try, and if you have ambitions, plans and good management, everything should work out,” says Ion.

It is possible that his company will soon need its own website for direct sales. The first greenhouse has already been built on the farm, where tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and sweet peppers will be grown. Ion hopes to reach the end customer with these products.

As soon as the situation permits, the farm will acquire a large drone, which allows to spray the fields without using tractors and significantly cuts fuel and human resources costs. This technology will cost between €10,000 and €50,000, depending on the configuration. “Even though a large drone is a dream for us, I would like it to come true,” says Ion.

Article published in Romanian and Russian by Newsmaker.md

 

Find out more

EU4 Digital https://eufordigital.eu

EU4Digital eSkills https://eufordigital.eu/thematic-area/eskills/

EU Delegation in the Republic of Moldova https://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/moldova

Tekwill https://tekwill.md

Tekwill education opportunities https://tekwill.md/education/

Tekwill Digital Upgrade programme https://tekwill.md/news/digital-upgrade-has-started-the-educational-program-for-digitizing-smes-2/

Through the EU4Digital Initiative, the European Union supports the implementation of digital skills strategies in the Eastern Partnership countries, in particular by: