Special Report: The Computer and the Farmer: The Role of Information Technology in Boosting Agricultural Productivity in Kazakhstan
Boosting agricultural production is a stated policy goal for many of the countries in the Greater Caspian Region. The majority of these countries have a third or more of their populations living in rural areas, often listing them in official statistics as “engaged in agriculture.” However, output statistics show meager levels of per-farmer-productivity. Boosting this productivity is, therefore, essential for raising the prosperity and level of living for significant portions of these countries’ populations.
The governments of the Greater Caspian Region also frequently announce modernizing or raising their country’s agricultural sector as a national goal. The reasons often include boosting export levels or reducing import levels as well as expanding economic prosperity or diversifying the economic base. Programs to increase grain, particularly wheat, production fall into this category as do the initiatives in a number of the countries to increase cotton production. Separate but related to this goal is the push to strengthen food security, i.e., the assured and affordable availability of food supplies to the countries’ population.
A long-standing aspect of United States engagement with the region’s governments is the effort to improve the agricultural base and rural standards of living. USAID has active programs in Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, for example, to boost animal husbandry, help farmers increase the production of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and market them more profitably, promote water management, or help increase farmers’ access to credit. It also continues to support the agriculture and food security sector in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
There is engagement by various U.S. states as well. Governments from the Greater Caspian Region have also begun reaching out directly to American states, for example, Illinois and Mississippi, to look at how those states support farmers and how farming practices there can be adopted in the Caucasus or Central Asia. Maine is one of many states interested in farmer-to-farmer contacts, noting the experiences U.S. smallholder farmers can share, and how it can benefit both sides.
There is another vector for sharing experiences and expertise which might seem surprising: private sector companies. Farm equipment manufacturers, for example, will offer training to the farmers in countries importing their equipment.
Increased engagement between Americans and the farmers of the Caucasus and Central Asia would be mutually beneficial. The productivity of American farms is among the highest in the world, but there is tremendous diversity in terms of farm size, crops, growing conditions, and marketing goals that can be tapped as countries in the Greater Caspian Region pursue programs to reform and increase the profitability and output of their agricultural sectors.
Against this background, this new Caspian Policy Center report looks at developments in Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector. The sector there is already large and profitable. Almost three-quarters of the country’s territory is suitable for some sort of agricultural activity and 25-32 percent of the country’s soil is arable. Kazakhstan is one of the top ten grain exporters in the world. However, it also classifies 32.2 percent of its estimated 8.2 million strong workforce as engaging in agriculture; meanwhile, they account for just 5.8 percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP.[i] Eighty percent of the machinery in use is at the end of its lifecycle and needs to be replaced, and 94 percent of the tractors in Kazakhstan are over ten years old. Agricultural machinery imports were about $300 million in 2017.[ii]
Kazakhstan also offers important insights into the growing intersection between information technology (IT) and agriculture. It is not just that new combines can be run from an iPad, but IT is critical for farmers’ marketing decisions as well as for obtaining information to grow better crops.
Moreover, Kazakhstan is putting emphasis on agriculture as part of its overarching drive to be one of the world’s top 30 economies by 2050. Even with the shakeup in the Cabinet and President Nazerbayev’s resignation, we expect the focus on upgrading agriculture and food production in country to continue. The promotion of Vice Minister of Agriculture Saparkhan Kesikbaevich Omarov to Minister supports this idea. Furthermore, Azerbaijan and other countries in the region are proceeding with agricultural sector reforms as well, including buying modern, western equipment to boost production—bringing new or marginal lands into cultivation, and seeking foreign know-how to improve yields and farmers’ incomes.
[i] Central Intelligence Agency. “Kazakhstan.” The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/PUBLICATIONS/the-world-factbook/geos/kz.html (retrieved February 23, 2019).
[ii] International Trade Administration. “Kazakhstan – Market Overview.” Export.gov. https://www.export.gov/article?series=a0pt0000000PAu9AAG&type=Country_Commercial__kav (retrieved February 21, 2019).