ICT + Strawberries

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ICT + Strawberries

A success in Tohoku, IT-based farming goes abroad

Mud infused with the saltiness of the sea covered the flatlands of Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, after the Great East Japan Earthquake. On March 11, 2011, the coastal town near the border with Fukushima Prefecture was devastated by tsunami, wiping out much of the farmland including the greenhouses of 125 out of 129 strawberry farms.

Yamamoto native Hiroki Iwasa, who was running an IT venture company in Tokyo at the time of the tsunami, went to his birthplace shortly after the disaster to volunteer. He soon realized he could help the town's economy by running strawberry farms and decided to revive the industry from scratch by making full use of computer systems for the farms.

He left Tokyo to set up his agricultural production corporation, General Reconstruction Association, in Yamamoto in July 2011, hiring local strawberry farmers who lost their jobs due to the tsunami. For months, they had been at a loss dealing with ruined farmland and a lack of funds.

Strawberry farmers in Yamamoto, like those across Japan, used their instincts bred from experience in controlling temperature, humidity and other conditions. In Iwasa's system, windows open and sprinklers spray automatically to optimize the climate for growing strawberries.

The system has enabled GRA to stabilize the strawberry supply, helping to also build a strong brand image. The unit price has more than tripled, from about ¥980 per kilogram before the tsunami to ¥3,000 per kilogram, Iwasa said in an interview at his farm in Yamamoto. The strawberry field covers an area of 11,000 sq. meters. GRA also grows tomatoes on a land area of 2,000 sq. meters.

Iwasa said he finds the farmers' knowledge very helpful as their input helps enhance the product quality. At the same time, he stressed the benefit of computerization because sharing the “instinct and experience” with others by inputting the information into computer systems maintains quality and averts the risk of situations when such veterans may be absent and nobody else knows what to do.

Indian challenge

GRA took this business model to India to provide Indians with sweet, tasty Japanese strawberries.

GRA sees India as an attractive market. In addition to India being the world's second most populated country, strawberries there are very expensive and, Iwasa said, do not taste very good.

“The strawberry's price per kilogram in India is almost the same as in Japan, meaning it's really expensive compared with the price level of other goods,” he said. “Also, they are not sweet and you cannot eat them raw.”

In order to grow Japanese strawberries in India to have the same flavor as in Japan, the climate must be the same as in Japan. Iwasa said he is confident of maintaining a climate in India that is optimal for the Japanese strawberries through the greenhouses using GRA's computer system.

“I am confident. The only thing to worry about is an unknown disease, or vermin,” Iwasa said.

The India strawberry venture, Pune, near Mumbai, started in November as one of the projects of the Japan International Cooperation Agency to improve the lives of Indian farmers. Iwasa is waiting for the harvest this spring.

“I want Japanese farmers to know Japanese agriculture can be a global success,” Iwasa said.

After India, GRA is planning this month to start growing Japanese strawberries in Saudi Arabia, where, similar to India, women do not enjoy much freedom to work, he said.

In Saudi Arabia, strawberries are mainly from Egypt and very expensive ones are from the U.S., Iwasa said. Both types are not very sweet, he said, adding that South Korea and Japan are the only countries where strawberries attain a high level of sweetness.

Making Tohoku sustainable

Now that two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, just pumping money into Tohoku is no longer an efficient way of supporting the area, Iwasa said. Instead, Japan should support Tohoku businesses to be sustainable even after the aid money runs out, he said.

“We're entering the third year after the quake and lots of financial support has come to Tohoku. It's fine as an injection of stimulus, but we should think about what to do when the money stops flowing into Tohoku,” he said.

Yamamoto-chou, Miyagi

“We should make products that can beat rival products worldwide. Unless you make products with such a mentality, you cannot be competitive, even in Japan,” Iwasa said. “Revitalization is not a word describing what we ought to be doing. It's the creation of something out of nothing.”

Produced by The Japan Times