BUCHAREST - A Romanian state agency for rural investments is using artificial intelligence to help farmers apply for European Union funds, it said on Monday, a first in one of the EU's least developed digital economies.

The Agency for Financing Rural Investments (AFIR) told Reuters it began using robots from software automation company UiPath a little over two years ago.

The robots have taken over the time-consuming tasks of tapping state databases to procure land registry and judicial records for farmers, entrepreneurs and state institutions applying for EU funds.

"AI-based automation plays an extremely important part in speeding key processes for farmers and making them more efficient," AFIR director George Chirita said.

Since it began using robots, the agency has handled financing requests worth 5.32 billion euros ($5.75 billion) from more than 50,000 farmers, companies and local institutions, it told Reuters in written comments.

Robots have saved roughly 784 days worth of document searches for AFIR staff, it said. The agency has disbursed 21 billion euros worth of funds over two decades.

Although Romania has emerged as one of Europe's most active technology hubs, with a highly skilled labour pool, it still lags many other European nations in offering digital public services for citizens and business and has struggled to tap billions of euros in EU development funds.

Eurostat data showed only 28% of Romanians had at least basic digital skills in 2023, below the EU average of 54%. Digital public services for citizens and businesses ranked at 45 compared with the EU average of 84.

UiPath, the Romanian company valued at $13.3 billion after going public on the New York Stock Exchange, told Reuters it has delivered automation services to other farming agencies including in Norway and the United States.

($1 = 0.9252 euros)

(Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Sharon Singleton)