Rural businesses are embracing the digital economy but face barriers to digital adoption due to a lack of skills and access to training in rural areas, according to new findings from Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) commissioned by Amazon.
A consultation of over 800 rural businesses by Rural England and SRUC found that almost four in five rural business owners believe digital tools and services are important to their future growth potential. Cloud computing is seen as the biggest driver (62%), closely followed by 5G mobile networks (54%), the Internet of Things (47%) and machine learning/artificial intelligence (26%).
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Rural business owners who export said e-commerce plays a big role, with 80% using digital tools and services to trade goods and services abroad. The top export destinations for rural businesses are the EU (84%) followed by the US (45%). In addition, 43% of all rural businesses specifically sell online through their own site or via a third party site, with the top two sectors using e-commerce being retail (80%) and the accommodation & food sector (71%).
“The research finds that rural businesses are typically family-run, home-based, owned by people aged over 55 years old and employing fewer than ten people – exactly the type of businesses that can gain from using digital technology to expand their productivity,” said Doug Gurr, UK country manager, Amazon. “Every day, we see digital technology levelling the playing field between businesses operating in urban and rural parts of the country, whether that’s exporting locally produced goods or using cloud computing to scale their business.”
The majority said they use cloud computing for their rural business. One example is IceRobotics, who provide data collection and analysis products for monitoring dairy cow behaviour to the farming sector. IceRobotics harness cloud computing and sensor technologies to monitor the fertility and health of cows used in dairy farming, enabling farmers to see alerts and visualisations of how their livestock are moving so they can manage their herds more productively.
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“Cloud computing provides compute power, storage, analytics, content delivery and other functionality to help farmers move faster, lower IT costs, and scale globally in minutes, so it’s key to driving innovation in business,” said Douglas Armstrong, CEO of IceRobotics.
“The growth potential cloud computing brings to the agricultural sector is significant, so the faster we get rural businesses adopting new technology, the more globally competitive rural Britain will be.”
Barrier to growth
However beyond issues with internet reliability and speed, over half of rural business owners said they face a variety of skills-related obstacles to adopting digital to unlock more growth, such as recruiting people with appropriate skills to finding training for their existing workforce.
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Almost a third have difficulty finding external or outsourced digital connectivity support, 14% have difficulty accessing appropriate external digital training for the existing workforce and one in five said their existing workforce lacks sufficient skills and struggle to recruit people with appropriate digital skills.
Brian Wilson, chair of directors at independent think tank Rural England, said: “What is striking in this research is the ambition and willingness of rural businesses to embrace new technology that could increase the global competitiveness of our rural economy. Whilst connectivity remains a concern, it is clear that more needs to be done beyond this in terms of more proactive support and skills development. We need a clear roadmap for fulfilling that potential – something we hope the final report will identify when published.”