Digital Transformation for Development: Japan’s Contribution

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is advancing initiatives aimed at achieving “digital transformation” (DX) in developing countries. We spoke with Miyata Mayumi, director of JICA’s newly launched Office of Science, Technology and Innovation & Digital Transformation, about JICA’s work.

In recent years, the topic of Digital Transformation (DX) is drawing global interest. In the Guidelines for Promoting Digital Transformation published by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in 2018, DX is defined as a process whereby “enterprises utilize data and digital technologies to transform their products, services and business models based on the needs of customers and society, and transform their business processes, organizations, processes, and corporate cultures in order to secure a competitive advantage, in response to violent changes in their business environment.” This definition is made from a business perspective, but DX can also be more widely defined as simply utilizing data and digital technologies to create a better society.

While the world has already achieved major changes through digitalization accompanying the evolution of information and communications technology (ICT), DX is another new phase materialized through use of new technologies such as IoT, AI and Big Data, often resulting in disruptions of established business. Successful examples of DX in the field of business include Amazon e-commerce services and Uber vehicle hiring services. Looking ahead, it is expected that DX will contribute to solving a wide range of issues, including medical care, education and the environment.

Under the 5th Science and Technology Basic Plan endorsed by the Cabinet Office in 2016, the Japanese government advocates for Society 5.0 as the model of society that Japan should aim to create going forward. Following on from past social models Society 1.0 (hunter-gatherer society), Society 2.0 (agricultural society), Society 3.0 (industrial society) and Society 4.0 (information-based society), the Society 5.0 model refers to a society which overcomes issues such as low birthrates, population aging, depopulation of rural areas and disparity of wealth through the application of technologies such as IoT, AI, robotics and automated vehicles. Thus, DX is indispensable in achieving the realization of the Society 5.0 model.

Given these trends both in Japan and overseas, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is advancing initiatives aimed at utilizing digital technologies in developing countries. In December 2019, for example, JICA established the Digital Transformation Task Force to discuss how JICA can utilize digital technologies to enhance the effectiveness and impact of development cooperation. At the end of May this year, it created a publication entitled Co-creating Digital Development to Achieve Society 5.0 for SDGs, in a joint effort with the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren). It is essentially a menu book for creating trusted digital societies in developing countries by combining the digital technologies possessed by Japanese companies with JICA’s knowledge and experience in international cooperation. Society 5.0 for SDGs presents various cases in fields such as health, agriculture and disaster prevention/readiness using JICA schemes such as Technical Cooperation and ODA loans.

A Japanese researcher from JAMSTEC conducts training on terminating mosquitoes, which carry malaria, in South Africa. COURTESY OF JICA

“Requests from developing countries for applying digital technologies as well as adapting to the digital economy have been increasing in recent years. The need for innovation through DX is evident for achieving the ambitious SDG targets. As JICA does not hold any digital technology by itself, partnerships with private companies and universities are essential in this context,” says Miyata Mayumi, director of the Office for Science, Technology and Innovation & Digital Transformation, which was newly launched as part of JICA’s organization this June. “Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a major global impact, and this is also increasing the need for DX.”

Using Supercomputers to Predict Malaria Epidemics

JICA has so far engaged in various forms of cooperation utilizing cutting edge technologies such as IoT, AI and Big Data. One such initiative is the Project for Establishment of an Early-warning System for Infectious Diseases in Southern Africa Incorporating Climate Predictions, conducted in South Africa between 2014 and 2019. The objective of the project, which was carried out as a Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS), was to build an early-warning system using Japanese supercomputers to predict malaria epidemics.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s World Malaria Report 2019, it is estimated that there were around 228 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2018, 93% of which occurred in Africa. Epidemics of malaria—which is spread by mosquitoes—are strongly related to climatic factors such as rainfall volume and temperature. If they can be predicted in advance, then it is possible to take preemptive measures, including preventive measures against mosquitoes and taking of prophylactic (antimalarial) drugs.

Project participants on the Japanese side included Nagasaki University and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), who worked alongside organizations including the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), National Department of Health (NDOH) and Applied Center for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS). The area covered by the project was Limpopo Province, in the northern part of South Africa, where malaria outbreaks occur during the rainy season between September and the following May.

Results achieved with iDEWS were announced at the Science Forum South Africa, held in Pretoria in December 2019. COURTESY OF JICA

The project created a database using the past twenty years of malaria patient information obtained from hospitals in the province, and utilized the SINTEX-F seasonal prediction system—developed using JAMSTEC’s Earth Simulator supercomputer—to build a system for predicting rainfall volume and temperatures in southern Africa to a high degree of precision, three months ahead of time. Project members then combined these two systems to develop the infectious Diseases Early Warning System (iDEWS).

Malaria epidemic predictions made using iDEWS were announced in December 2017. Based on these predictions, Limpopo Province implemented measures such as insecticide spraying and stockpiling of pharmaceuticals, as a result of which the death rate due to malaria decreased in comparison with the previous year.

In response to these results, the South African government has established the iDEWS Bureau, through which it plans to provide services predicting epidemics of malaria and other infectious diseases based on climate predictions. It is also considering utilizing the system in neighboring countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Farming Utilizing IoT

In Colombia, rice is an important item of agricultural produce ranking alongside coffee and corn. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) statistics, Colombia produces around 2.5 million tons of rice per year (average annual yield between 2015 and 2019). However, the efficiency of use of water and fertilizer in rice paddies in Latin America—including Colombia—is low. Growing conditions have also worsened due to the excessive use of weed-killing herbicides, also leading to a decline in production capability.

In light of this situation, between 2014 and 2019, the Project for Development and Adoption of Latin American Low-input Rice Production System through Genetic Improvement and Advanced Field-Management Technologies was conducted as a SATREPS project.

An “e-kakashi” data collection terminal, installed at a rice paddy in Columbia. COURTESY OF JICA

Project participants on the Japanese side included the University of Tokyo, Kyushu University and other research institutions, while those on the Colombian side included organizations such as the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the National Federation of Rice Growers (FEDEARROZ). The objectives of the project were to develop new strains of rice plant with genes that would enable effective intake of water and fertilizers, which would be suitable for cultivation in Colombia, and to develop technologies that would enable efficient cultivation using fertilizers while saving water.

The project involved the introduction of the “e-kakashi” (or “e-scarecrow”) AI-powered IoT solution provided by SoftBank Corp. The “e-kakashi” system gathers data twenty-four hours a day, via sensor nodes installed at growing sites, on factors such as temperature, amount of solar radiation, and carbon dioxide concentration, and stores them on the cloud. An AI then analyses the accumulated data and automatically provides users with information relating to cultivation—such as optimal harvesting times and the occurrence of risks such as agricultural pests—via smartphones or tablet devices. It could be said that the “e-kakashi” system is a technology that will greatly transform farming, which until now has relied heavily on the experience and intuition of farmers.

The “e-kakashi” system enables farmers to check the state of cultivation using a smartphone. COURTESY OF JICA

In the project, “e-kakashi” was used to monitor the growth of new strains of rice plant. Using the data acquired via “e-kakashi,” and a combination of rice cultivation and meteorological data amassed by CIAT over many years, the research group succeeded in predicting harvest times with almost complete accuracy. Delays in harvesting had generated losses of up to 20%, and gaining the ability to accurately predict harvest times will enable farmers to minimize such losses.

“During the successful progress of the project in 2018, ‘e-kakashi’ has since been taken up in another project supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Colombia, with a similar goal to improve the productivity and sustainability of rice cultivation,” says Miyata. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications decided to implement a demonstration project this year as well, and the Japanese government is continuing to follow up on the seeds sown in the project. 

 “We think this is a good example which demonstrates that the initiative has been carried on very well to the next stage.”

Monitoring Forests with Satellites

Project members in Peru discuss their forest monitoring approach based on data. COURTESY OF JICA

JICA is conducting various projects in developing countries in order to drive forest conservation efforts, as an important measure against climate change. One such initiative is the monitoring of forests using satellite images.

JICA announced the Initiative for Improvement of Forest Governance, in a joint effort with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in 2015. The purpose of the project is to contribute to the preservation of tropical forests through a system that constantly monitors the state of deforestation and decline in tropical forests worldwide, developed using data obtained from the JAXA artificial satellite ALOS-2.

As one aspect of this initiative, in 2016, the project members launched the JICA-JAXA Forest Early Warning System in the Tropics (JJ-FAST). Under JJ-FAST, the state of deforestation and change in tropical forests around the world is publicly announced at an average pace of once every 1.5 months. Published information is easily accessible from PCs, smartphones and other devices via the Internet, and currently includes information on the state of tropical forests in seventy-seven countries, including those in Middle and South America, Africa and Asia.

One project using JJ-FAST is the Project on Capacity Development for Forest Conservation and REDD+ Mechanisms, which has been underway in Peru since 2016. Although Peru has expansive forests, including rainforests in the Amazon river basin and dry forests on the Pacific coast, the decline and devastation of these forests is progressing at a rapid pace due to inappropriate management and illegal logging. For this reason, the Peruvian government is implementing climate change measures through forest conservation, using international mechanisms such as REDD+ for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and/or increasing CO2 absorption by suppressing the decline and degradation of forests and implementing sustainable forest management.

In order to boost these kinds of initiatives, as well as the use of JJ-FAST, the project is supporting the monitoring of forests and the creation of forest maps and an enforcement system against illegal logging.

Smooth Transportation Using IC Smart Cards

Passengers touch their IC smart cards against a card reader as they board a bus in Dhaka. The pass system utilizes the Suica technology which is widely used in Japan. COURTESY OF JICA

According to UN statistics, the population of Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) is increasing rapidly, having grown from 6.62 million in 1990 to 17.6 million in 2015. This population increase in Dhaka has been accompanied by serious problems such as traffic congestion and air pollution. In order to improve on these problems, the government of Bangladesh is planning to develop five Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) routes and two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes in the city.

To support this plan, since 2013, JICA has been implementing the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transit Development Project, financing the construction of MRT Route 6. Since 2014, JICA has also been conducting the Project for Establishment of Clearing House for Integrating Transport Ticketing System in Dhaka City Area. 

A poster promoting the Rapid Pass IC smart card in Dhaka. COURTESY OF JICA

A clearing house is a system that distributes fare payments collected from passengers to transportation service operators according to the numbers of passengers using their services. The key to this system lies in the introduction of common IC smart cards which can be used on the various transportation systems. The use of smart cards not only benefits transport operators by enabling reliable collection of fares from transportation users, but also greatly benefits users by eliminating the need for users to buy tickets for each transfer they make. Processes such as smart card issuing and management, and the creation of databases for recording the usage histories of smart card users are essential to the establishment of a clearing house.

Phase 1 of the project, which started in 2014, involved the development of smart cards and terminal machines utilizing the Felica technology used in the Suica fare card which is widely used in Japan, and the construction of a clearing house. Demonstration tests conducted on bus routes operated by three bus companies were very well received by smart card users.

The Rapid Pass card reader terminals are portable and easily installed. COURTESY OF JICA

In Phase 2, which began in March 2020, the aim is to integrate fare payment systems for BRT and MRT Route 6 (which is scheduled to open in 2022), and to establish a clearing house operating company.

“The introduction of IC smart cards not only offers increased convenience for users, but also increases the transparency of governance for public transportation,” says Miyata. “The utilization of new technologies can deliver inclusive and collective benefits, with a greater degree of fairness.”

The Future of DX

Looking ahead, JICA will continue to engage in various initiatives aimed at achieving DX. In northern Uganda, which is facing an influx of refugees from South Sudan, JICA plans to provide support in 2021 for tackling COVID-19 in refugee residential districts and host communities, utilizing mobile phones to collect data and disseminate information. JICA is considering the possibility to provide and distribute information of infectious diseases (including COVID-19) and vaccines, hygiene awareness videos, and educational materials through the use of smart phones and mobile phones.

In addition to gathering and accumulating information on current conditions and needs on the ground, the project will combine and analyze this data with infrastructure, education and environment data accumulated so far by JICA and other international organizations in order to provide the necessary support.

For example, JICA intends to collaborate with NGOs supporting healthcare professionals to gather data on households and individuals in the target region, to provide support based on this data, and to establish the system to quantitatively assess the effectiveness of this support.

In Cambodia, JICA will support the widespread adoption of “Bakong,” a payment platform deploying the Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), a digital currency being introduced by the country’s central bank. Although the percentage of people aged 15 and over in Cambodia who possess a bank account is around 20%, the adoption rate for smartphones is approaching 127%. It is thought that encouraging the widespread use of mobile finance will enable more citizens to receive the financial services required to facilitate economic activities. Moreover, US dollars currently account for around 80% of currency in circulation in Cambodia, and encouraging use of the home currency—the riel—is an issue.

In light of this situation, in order to stimulate use of mobile finance and the riel, the National Bank of Cambodia decided to develop “Bakong,” a mobile payment system which utilizes blockchain technology developed by a Japanese company; and officially launched it on October 28, 2020. In 2021, JICA plans to provide support for accelerating its widespread use.

“JICA has massive amounts of data, gathered through the various research and projects it has conducted until now,” says Miyata. “Going forward, we want to consolidate and manage this data on the cloud and make use of it in our upcoming research and projects in developing countries. In the future, we also want to create a system that will enable open use of this data by governments, companies, NPOs and other organizations in various countries.”

SAWAJI Osamu, The Japan Journal

Note: This article first appeared in the November/December issue of the Japan Journal.


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