We’re living the digital technological revolution and every day we experience the impact of it but there is still so much more potential to create change with technology. Megan O’Brien explains how the food and agriculture industry is at the forefront of this change.
There is major innovation happening around the technology in this industry with a number of start-ups bringing ideas to the market that can help to combat our climate crisis, implement food crises solutions and teach us how to use our scarce resources in a more efficient and sustainable way.
There are roughly 70 million people in the small growth farming community in Pakistan and the average income for a typical family of 6 is $350 per year. Water is considered a scarce resource and these farmers cannot afford to waste it, that’s where Radical Growth Solutions (RGS) comes in; an ag-tech start-up that have built a smart irrigation system to enable these farmers to understand exactly how much water they need for each plant in their crop in order to utilise their resources more efficiently.
RGS is a start-up founded by Nabeel Yousuf. Originally from Jordan with a background in film and entertainment, Yousuf moved to Pakistan 10 years ago on a mission to create a movie to showcase Pakistan in the positive light that it is so often denied by the media. However, his dream took a turn down a different path when he connected with nature on an island in Thailand and decided to go back to Pakistan to grow vegetables. He loves this work, explaining: “We work on the land every day; it’s a very personal relationship and it teaches you give and take. You take care of the soil; it will give you food.”
However, it was while working as a farmer Nabeel encountered the problems that RGS is now working to solve: “The electricity was expensive, fertiliser was messy and all that so I thought there has to be a way of fixing this,” Yousuf said. “I looked at the models available online and they were very expensive so I started talking to engineers locally and I realised that we have the local resources to make this equipment and there is a massive market, why shouldn’t we try it?”
Explaining how the system works, Yousuf said, “For 11 thousand years, farmers have watered crops the same way.
“He gets up every morning and waters his soil. What we’re doing is we’re going a level below, we’re monitoring root conditions, we are not watering land, we’re watering plants. We collect real time data from the field using multiple sensors below and above ground and based on that information we determine exactly how much water each plant requires, not the land.
“It’s a completely automated system, we use soil sensors and weather sensors, so we don’t only just look at how much moisture there is and what is the temperature of the soil, we also look at weather conditions and how much humidity is available in the air. What side is the wind coming from and its speed? These things determine if the rain is going to come. We have predictive algorithms and models that determine when precisely it will rain and how much there will be, and it waters each plant accordingly. So, the main concept we’re working on is trying to optimise irrigation cycles.”
The system uses Internet of Things (IoT) and Long Range (LoRa) technology and will also focus on the collection and analysis of data using simple Artificial Intelligence algorithms. “If everything works out fine in the next 10 years, I’m going to have enough data using the sensors to literally be able to tell you how much water it requires to grow a watermelon for example,” Yousuf said. “Once we have those numbers, then I can try to make sure that people use that information to help each other.”
The impact of this is huge, it won’t just conserve water; a large amount of fertiliser gets lost as the crop gets watered through evaporation or seepage into the soil. Smarter irrigation will conserve fertiliser and pesticides too, pumps will be turned on less and so electricity will also be conserved meaning the farmer will save money. And finally, as the system is automated it will conserve manpower. “We don’t want to eliminate the human resource, but you would drastically enhance their livelihood with so much more time to do other things.”
By “other things”, Yousuf is referring to education and the sharing of experiences. Education is just as important in RGS as the product itself: “the first step is always to educate the farmer.”
Tik Tok, Facebook and YouTube are extremely popular apps and a lot of people in the farming community use them for entertainment, but Yousuf believes we should think about the potential for education through them. “Imagine in a country where you have about 70 million farmers and you have a small YouTube channel with locals from this community that have time now to talk about their methods, their success and the value of Agri-tech,” Yousuf said. “Imagine the potential to educate through that.
“With less time taken up with physical farming, they have more time to share experiences, it’s a massive ripple effect.”
Talking about how big the market could be for this innovative system, Yousuf isn’t concerned with dominating it, he actually welcomes the spotlight on his competitors as it means the world is becoming educated on the idea.
As the UN turns 75 this year, we’re talking about the impact of technology, impact comes from widespread dissemination, not coveting and Yousuf expresses a belief that reflects that. “It’s too big, there’s 7 billion people on the planet, I can’t serve everybody, and I don’t want to.
“In a competition, one person has to lose; in collaboration, everybody wins, and that’s always been my model. The best part of sharing is when you share knowledge. If I just learn things and keep them to myself, what’s the point, It’s all about sharing.”