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Digital Technology Buoys Indonesian Catfish Farmers

Men working for Edy Prasetyo harvesting catfish in Indramayu, West Java, take a break on a recent day. Credit: Kafil Yamin/IPS

INDRAMAYU, Indonesia, Jun 24 2022 (IPS) - For years Indramayu has been known as one of Indonesia’s rice centres. The district in West Java is the country’s number one rice producer, generating 1.3 million tonnes of husked rice in 2021, according to Indonesia’s Centre of Statistics (BPS). The country’s total rice production was 54 million tonnes.

What we witness as we drive to the district confirms the rice-dominant economy. Paddy fields stretch on the right and left as far as the eye can see. This is early June, traditionally the start of the harvest, but the plants are still green, indicating that the harvest is still months away.

It is also a clear sign that the paddy growing cycle has changed, due to a shift in climate.

Ironically, Indramayu was one of the five poorest districts in West Java in 2021, according to the BPS report, which also revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic increased the number of poor in Indramayu by 13 percent.

Even before the pandemic, Indramayu was a pocket of poverty in Indonesia. The majority of people in the paddy-dominant district are not land-owning farmers but farm labourers or landless growers.

Paddy fields are labour-intensive only during planting season and harvest, which take place three times a year on average. That leaves three to four months as free time for landless farmers. Both men and women migrate to the capital Jakarta, 240 km away, to find temporary jobs, before returning to Indramayu for the harvest.


Labour migration decreasing

Global climate change has been disrupting these patterns — of planting, harvesting, and migration. But one silver lining of this disruption is that landless growers have begun to find alternative livelihoods without migrating to Jakarta. Fish farming is a popular choice in the coastal district.

Indramayu farmers started making ponds along the seashore to raise tiger prawns, a popular commodity. But this farming is vulnerable to incursions from the ocean, including tidal waves.

That’s why Edy Prasetyo, 46, chose to enter the catfish farming business in 2001. Twenty-one years later, Prasetyo has 69 ponds in Soge village, Kandanghaur sub-district.

In recent years catfish has become a favourite street food for middle and low-income people in almost all major cities in Indonesia. Demand is so high that in the Jakarta area, where most Indramayu catfish is sold, shortages are common. Seeing the opportunity, some young local growers have become rich quick.

It’s demanding work, Prasetyo tells an IPS reporter on a recent visit. “We have to stick to a fixed feeding schedule, including during the night and when it rains. Imagine walking around the ponds in heavy rain and throwing catfish food into them. I have 69 ponds. I need at least 10 people to do it.”

But now, new technology is making the farmers’ lives easier. In October 2020, FAO Indonesia and Bogor Agriculture University (IPB) introduced technology known as eFishery to Prasetyo’s village. After a short training he and other catfish farmers began to adopt the system, particularly a digital automatic fish feeder.

Invented by a graduate of Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Gibran Huzaifah, the auto-feeder connects through the internet to farmers’ smartphones. There they can set the breed of fish, feeding schedules and the amount of food pellets to drop into the ponds.


Gunawan, 47, a catfish farmer in Ciseeng, West Java, has been using the auto-feeder since 2019. Credit: Kafil Yamin/IPS


Detects level of hunger

The auto-feeder is equipped with an in-water, vibration-based sensor that is able to read the movements of hungry versus full fish. Guided by the farmer’s feeding schedule, when the artificial intelligence detects hunger, it releases the amount of feed required. This avoids over or underfeeding the fish.

The auto-feeder connects through the internet to farmers’ smartphones. There they can set the breed of fish, feeding schedules and the amount of food pellets to drop into the ponds

The eFishery’s sensors collect and store real time data, such as feed volumes and consumption levels. Farmers can access this through eFishery’s web and mobile apps on their smartphone, tablet or computer and make any needed changes to the feeding.

“This is the kind of technology we need,” says Prasetyo. “It cuts time spent for feeding the catfish and saves a lot of energy.”

With eFishery, production has increased 25-30 percent, says the farmer, adding that he has more time to spend on other things. Additional benefits of the technology include that the size and weight of the catfish can be controlled and the water quality is monitored.

While Prasetyo spoke, several men placed buckets of catfish on weighing scales and then transferred them to a small truck, which soon drove out of the village, bound for Jakarta.

Losarang sub-district has now become Indramayu’s catfish centre, with the majority of residents farming the species. Catfish ponds dominate the landscape. “Sixty percent of Indramayu’s 200 hectares of catfish ponds are in Losarang sub-district,” said Thalib, the village head.

The technology and knowledge has spread throughout the area, and Prasetyo’s success story has drawn fishermen from other villages to learn about eFishery.

“This is what Member Nations want. This is what this project is designed for,” said Aziz Elbehri, senior economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Office in Bangkok, who leads the 1,000 Digital Villages Initiative (DVI) for Asia and Pacific.

A global initiative inspired by FAO’s Director-General Mr QU Dongyu, the DVI is being piloted in the Asia-Pacific region. Soge village is among many being showcased and sharing its advancements with other villages and areas in Asia and the Pacific, as well as other regions of the world.

“A successful undertaking in one village should be copied, or in popular terms, replicated to other villages. And this is what is happening here now,” Elbehri told IPS as he and his FAO team visited Soge village on 26 May.

“Indonesia is one of the success stories,” Elbehri said, pointing out several female catfish farmers who joined his visit. As eFishery is a national innovation, the project is also driving national excellence, he added.


Challenges remain

Catfish farming is not without challenges. Mardiah, 52, has been farming the species for 26 years. “Sometimes we go through lack of water during prolonged drought, which has caused many of our catfish to die. At other times, we get flooded during heavy rainfall and our ponds are destroyed,” he told IPS, adding that farmers can do little about such natural occurrences. Disease is another serious threat.

But what gives farmers their largest headache is the soaring price of catfish food. “More and more people make fish ponds, while catfish food production remain the same. This make its price soar,” Mardiah said.

Head of the Indramayu Fishery and Marine Office, Edi Umaedi, told IPS that fish ponds cover 560 hectares in his area, more than half of it is used for catfish farming. Last year, Indramayu’s catfish production reached 85,000 tonnes.

Setting up the business is not difficult, added Umaedi, and farmers prefer it because unlike rice, catfish can endure a water shortage and do not require irrigation. “Fish ponds, particularly catfish ponds, do not need a vast amount of land. One pond of 100 or 200 square metres is enough to farm catfish.”

To date, FAO and IPB have established eFishery in 30 villages in West Java and there are plans to expand to other Indonesian provinces.


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