A farmer in Moldova uses the iFarms app to digitize his farm processes. | © Euroalun

Transforming Moldova's Agriculture by Leveraging Digital Solutions

BY: Laura Andros, Bojan Kolundzija - 13. May 2024
© Euroalun

In Moldova, known to locals as a “small country with a big heart,” agriculture stands as the cornerstone of the economy. In recent years, agricultural companies have shifted their focus towards Western markets that demand stringent and intricate standards, and where competition is fierce. Moldova's agriculture has also felt the impact of the conflict in Ukraine, which has forced farmers to swiftly embrace change. Digitalization emerged as a beacon of hope to make these needed changes a reality. But not all Moldovan farmers initially embraced this technological leap. A local company seized the opportunity to develop a digital solution for agricultural management that is now widely used by farmers, thus securing an open pathway to European markets.

Moldova’s fertile soil and sunny climate make it an ideal environment for thriving agriculture. With 2.5 million hectares of arable land, the agricultural sector contributes significantly to the nation's economy, accounting for 12% of GDP and employing nearly one-third of the workforce.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable trend of companies aiming to shift their focus towards high-value markets in the West. This transformation requires changes that some farmers were initially skeptical about. But sticking to the status quo was also an undesirable option; outdated practices and increasing production costs led to decreased yields and lower quality, and even reduced quantities of agricultural products.

For Moldova's agriculture to stay competitive in dynamic markets like Europe, the sector must leverage all available resources to boost its competitiveness. Digitization plays a crucial role here. Through technology, production processes can become more efficient and automated, resources can be utilized more effectively, and costs can be cut. These enhancements significantly contribute to creating agricultural products that can compete and maintain high standards in international markets.

Challenges to the agriculture sector

Despite its strong role in the economy, Moldova's agriculture sector faces serious challenges that hinder its ability to meet its full potential. One of the most prominent challenges is systemic deficiencies. Moldova’s agriculture suffers from limited access to rural infrastructure (irrigation, roads, storage) and outdated technology and machinery (especially related to post-harvesting processing). Additionally, agricultural production is not insured, leaving farmers vulnerable to losses if unexpected weather affects crops. Some farmers hesitate to invest, take loans or apply for grants because they're unsure how to access financing. They also lack a good grasp of marketing tools and methods to enhance their branding and promotion. And, in some instances, the farming community is reluctant to work cooperatively.

Climate change is another growing obstacle that makes the situation worse and remains largely unaddressed and poorly understood. Salaries in the agriculture sector are among the lowest in Moldova, and during the high season (cultivation, harvesting and processing) it becomes more and more difficult to find highly, semi- and even low-skilled labor. The impact of the demographic pressures and migration, alongside the conflict in Ukraine, can be seen in the reduction of investments, commodity dumping, and overall uncertainty that goes as far as affecting the economic stability of the country.

These and many other unnamed challenges have caused chronic low agricultural efficiency and, consequently, low competitiveness in high value markets.

Adapting to compete in global markets

Before the war in Ukraine, Moldovan farmers used to sell their products to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) markets such as Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and had longstanding partnerships with companies from these countries. But the conflict caused problems with trade routes and shipping, making it hard for Moldovan farmers to export to Ukraine and beyond.

Moldova also imports a significant portion of its agricultural inputs (e.g., seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) from Ukraine. Getting these supplies has become difficult during the conflict, leading to shortages and higher prices. The trade issues, unstable markets and a lack of workers all made it more expensive to farm in Moldova, ultimately making it harder for Moldovan products to compete internationally.

At this critical juncture, Moldova's agriculture had to pivot towards EU markets. However, to meet the standards of these new markets and gain approval to sell in Europe, Moldovan farmers and their produce had to undergo significant improvements. This involved not just obtaining important certifications and meeting legal requirements but also enhancing the quality of Moldovan products. Adapting to new practices, modernizing traditional methods through automation, and prioritizing a competitive business model became essential. It also became crucial to place new emphasis on marketing and promoting products – an area where Moldovan farmers lacked expertise and hands-on experience.

While Moldova's struggles are not unique and are shared by many low and lower-middle-income countries around the globe, they underscore the urgent need for innovative solutions to propel agricultural development. Farmers looked to technology as a highly effective solution for enhancing the quality and quantity of their production, enabling them to access higher-value markets and secure a more stable income.

Using technology to boost agriculture

Despite substantial challenges, agriculture in Moldova has already demonstrated admirable resilience and adaptability in face of the shocks. A good example is the significant effort made by the agriculture sector to explore new crops and diversify from traditional markets, and how this has prepared the sector for the disruptions created by the conflict in Ukraine.

Recent developments have also brought new perspectives and opportunities to Moldova. These include: the approval of Moldova’s European Union (EU) candidate member status in December 2023, where the country obtained wider access to EU markets; the signing of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) agreement, where Moldova entered into trade agreements with Iceland, the Principality of Liechtenstein, Norway and the Swiss Confederation; and the private sector’s efforts to open new markets.

This is where technology comes into play, allowing the fast-forwarding of development while providing effective and applicable solutions. For farmers, new technology offers an open door to stay informed about prices, demand trends and consumer preferences on both internal and external markets. Through websites and agricultural platforms, farmers can better know what crops to grow and where to sell them, as well as see customers’ feedback and learn ways to improve their production capacity.

Technology also serves as a bridge between buyers, distributors and retailers in Moldova and the EU. Through European markets, farmers can access new opportunities and increase their sales potential. In particular, precision agriculture technologies such as GPS, drones and sensors help farmers optimize inputs, manage resources more efficiently and reduce environmental impact.

The iFarms application

Acknowledging the critical role of a modernized agricultural sector in boosting the country's economy and enhancing competitiveness in EU markets, Helvetas launched the OPTIM project in Moldova in 2018. OPTIM, a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation implemented by Helvetas, aims to assist smallholder farmers and agricultural workers in adopting modern, efficient agricultural practices and new production technologies. This initiative is crucial for improving income and job security for individuals in Moldova. To achieve its goals, OPTIM collaborates with local companies, providing them with support in accessing knowledge, financing and digital solutions.

In 2019, OPTIM partnered with Euroalun (alun means hazelnut in Romanian), a local agricultural company known for its experience in hazelnut orchard and seedling materials. When the partnership began, Euroalun was in the midst of a long search for solutions to resolve their farms and plantations’ pain points.

“When we began working with hazelnut plantations, we also provided farmers with advice to enhance their plantations and fruit quality,” said Alexandr Perjan, CEO of Euroalun. “However, monitoring whether they implemented all the agronomists' advice was challenging. We initially used a Google document for customers to log activities, because if we know what activities you’ve realized, the agronomist can suggest the next steps to get better results. But managing and providing suggestions based on data sent in that form became burdensome. That's when the idea for an app came about, leading to the creation of iFarms.”

Piotr Teodorov (right), a farmer from south Moldova, has equipped his hazelnut orchard with iFarms technical equipment, including sensors. | © Euroalun
Piotr Teodorov (right), a farmer from south Moldova, stands with Alexandr Perjan, CEO of Euroalun. Piotr has equipped his hazelnut orchard with iFarms technical equipment, including sensors. © Euroalun
iFarms technical team assisting farmers in Criuleni, Moldova, to install the weather station, soil_leaf moisture sensors and insect trap. | © Euroalun
The iFarms technical team assists farmers in Criuleni, Moldova, to install a weather station, soil-leaf moisture sensors and insect traps.  © Euroalun
Offering technical assistance to farmers is a free service included with the iFarms app. | © Euroalun
Offering technical assistance to farmers is a free service included with the iFarms app. © Euroalun

With Helvetas’ support, Euroalun developed a comprehensive digital solution that has multi-fold uses, including enhancing farm management and production, wider system integration and data analysis. This and much more was found in the iFarms application.

Launched in 2021, the app represents a paradigm shift in farm management by integrating advanced technologies into traditional farming methods. Euroalun and OPTIM encouraged farmers towards the use of iFarms through gradual adaptation and continual training about different system features, as well as building understanding on the app’s goals and benefits.

“Farmers we spoke with expressed a strong need for a digital platform that can efficiently gather all their data, activities and recommendations in a clear form that is easy to follow,” said Alexandr. “They found working on paper inefficient. We've listened to their feedback and integrated all their requests into the app. Currently, we offer 16 free modules and 19 paid pro modules, and there are over 600 users from across Moldova.”

iFarms has a wide array of tools, including precision agriculture, remote sensing, data analytics and advisory services. By leveraging data collected from sensors and cameras mounted on automated weather stations, insect traps, ground control points and other IoT devices, farmers gain real-time insights into soil health, crop growth, disease status and weather patterns, and obtain advice on taking action (including timing, quantities and precise locations). All data can be viewed in a mobile and/or desktop application where a farmer can follow up in real time, reviewing 35 features that are currently being monitored to make informed decisions.

© Euroalun
The main functions and process flow of the iFarms application. © Euroalun

“There was a big demand for automated irrigation systems that could be controlled remotely. We recently added this feature to the app. Now, farmers can check soil moisture levels and activate irrigation directly from their phones,” said Alexandr.

The system has a possibility to include drones (currently not applicable in Moldova due to security concerns) while the next feature to be included will be digitalizing the Global Gap certification process. This certification process ensures that farmers adhere to internationally recognized standards for food safety, sustainability and environmental protection, and comply with legal requirements and regulations. Having a digital certificate will immensely simplify the process of setting and monitoring standards, maintaining digital records and reducing the workload of famers and auditors – all while improving accuracy.

The system offers development and integration of new features according to the need and a possibility to act as an individual or integrated early warning system. This data-driven approach enables precise decision-making, optimizes resource allocation, reduces input costs, and increases yields and profit – all while reducing farmers’ environmental footprint. iFarms also facilitates communication and collaboration among farmers, agronomists and stakeholders, fostering a more efficient and sustainable agricultural ecosystem.

“We’ve been using iFarms for almost two years. We've set up alerts for weather updates and insect and disease monitoring,” said local farmer Veaceslav Eremia.  “By staying informed about our orchard's changes, we know exactly which plant protection products to use, the right amount of fertilizer, and when to irrigate or minimize pesticide use. This ensures top quality, helping us maintain our eco-certification and export our produce.”

As Moldova's agriculture continues to evolve, the partnership between Euroalun and Helvetas remains committed to driving innovation and empowerment. Our next joint initiative tackles spring frost, a persistent problem that causes farmers great losses. Traditional solutions like burning fires produce inadequate results and are often detrimental to the environment. Euroalun and OPTIM are currently testing the suitability of anti-frost wind machines in Moldova.

As we navigate the complexities of the agricultural landscape, one thing remains clear: by embracing technology and collaboration, Moldova's agriculture sector can overcome challenges and realize its full potential.

About the Authors

Laura Andros is the Communication Manager for Helvetas Moldova.

Bojan Kolundzija is the Country Director for Helvetas Moldova and Team Leader of the OPTIM project.

Helvetas’ Work in Moldova

Helvetas has been active in Moldova since 2018. A 24-person staff supports projects focused on enhancing economic opportunities, humanitarian response and emergency preparedness.

The OPTIM project, which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, aims to strengthen Moldova’s economy by stimulating market systems and addressing constraints in two sectors: agriculture and ICT.

RECONOMY, a regional inclusive and green economic development program of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, fosters partnerships for sustainable change in four economic sectors in Moldova. These include: digitalization of agriculture, tourism and manufacturing sectors; energy efficiency in construction and renovation; circular economy in textiles and apparel; and inclusive skills in ICT.

Following the outbreak of the Ukraine war in 2022, Helvetas began providing humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees. This includes providing transport from the border to the capital and reception centers, as well as supporting Moldovan host families. In 2023 the Building Resilient Communities in Ștefan Vodă Rayon USAID project was launched, which focuses on strengthening the capacity of local authorities and communities to manage and reduce disaster-related losses and damages.

Partnership and Capacity Development

Sustainable change must be owned by national actors. Working in partnerships is a fundamental principle of Helvetas’ work.