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Tech start-up could save agriculture millions

Jul 15 2018 06:10
Steve Kretzmann

Using satellite imagery and drone technology, a Cape Town-based start-up is able to potentially save the agricultural sector millions of rands in crop losses due to pests and disease, boosting the sector and contributing to increased food security.

Nedbank Corporate Investment Banking’s (CIB’s) Venture Capital Fund has just bought a stake in it.

Aerobotics, which was started in early 2015 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, focuses on analysing data for tree crops such as citrus, fruits and nuts.

The company employs about 30 people.

They have developed software that uses layers of data from satellite and drone imagery to map individual trees in order to determine their health and identify those suffering from pests or disease, or from a lack of irrigation or nutrition.

On top of this is an app, which acts a bit like a Google map to direct the farmer to the specific trees which are below optimum health, saving time and fuel in large orchards.

Speaking at their Woodstock, Cape Town offices this week, Paterson said their basic service, which uses satellite data updated every five days dependent on cloud cover, together with their scouting app, costs farmers R10 per hectare per month.

The addition of drone fly overs to increase the accuracy of data costs R100 per hectare per flight, with three to four flights per season offering the best results.

While there are many drone image services offered to farmers to give them an aerial overview of their crop health, Aerobotics claims to be ahead of the game globally in developing unique software that uses the aerial data to individually identify and analyse every tree on the farm.

The resultant early detection of stressed trees saves farmers about R10 000 per hectare in lost yields per year, said Paterson.

He said their first test client, who has been working with them since the beginning, has saved R51 000 per year on a 4-hectare orchard.

With four drone flights per season and a basic subscription, the cost of the full service at approximately R1 600 per hectare over a year still equalled an R8 400 per hectare saving due to early intervention.

This was about 5% to 10% of nett value per hectare, said Ockie Geldenhuys, chair of the Ceres Fruit Farmers Association.

Paterson, who is the son of a citrus farmer in Clanwilliam, said they currently have about 500 clients representing 60 000 hectares on their platform. About 90% of these are in South Africa, but they also have clients in Australia, Spain, France and the US.

With 100 million hectares of tree crops in South Africa, the company has massive growth potential, currently servicing only 0.06% of its local market and barely touching the international market as yet.

This potential has been recognised by Nedbank CIB, which used its newly established venture fund to buy an undisclosed equity stake in the company.

Nedbank CIB head of disruption and innovation, Stuart van der Veen, said the new division was established a year ago to “experiment in frontier technology” to the benefit of their clients, and Aerobotics was the new division’s first investment from its R100 million fund, an amount which was just “a toe in the water”.

Van der Veen said the type of “granular equity allocation” in a tech company such as Aerobotics “hasn’t necessarily made sense for very large balance sheets in the past”.

However, the ability to scale up for the biggest industry on the continent has Nedbank introducing the technology to “a couple of significant clients” and “forward-looking clients”, including agricultural co-operatives and farmers, within their business banking sector.

The bank’s disruption portfolio, Van der Veen said, was looking at how to “create alternative futures” for its clients, and there was “a massive rise in agritech” with food security and farming becoming increasingly important.

The investment in Aerobotics was part of validating technology in this sphere, finding value propositions and scaling it up.

Van der Veen said the agricultural industry was very complex and there were massive amounts of data that had not yet been measured.

“So if we draw from that, there’s a lot of optimisation we can add to the farm.”

Paterson said farming was moving from the age of mechanisation into the age of digitisation, in which existing data was analysed to optimise yields.

He said while the Aerobotics software had been developed to identify and analyse individual trees by feeding countless images into the algorithm, the next step was to enable work at leaf level so that pests and diseases could be identified before they affected the entire tree.

At this level, it would also be useful to field crop farmers, opening a potential market of an additional one billion hectares for data analysis in South Africa alone.

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