“Environmental sense makes common sense”

Blog published by CW (Cambridge Wireless)

For the second event in the year-long CW Unplugged: Tech for the Environment programme, CW assembled a plethora of technology and agriculture experts to discuss ‘Tech for Earth’.

DISCOVER THE NEXT CW UNPLUGGED EVENT: TECH FOR FIRE, 17 JULY

Once again led by social responsibility heavyweights United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the Centre for Global Equality and sponsored by local tech giants Arm & u-blox, Tech for Earth gathered teams of entrepreneurs, engineers and enthusiasts to address the technical and business challenges set by the two start-up ventures: eCO-SENSE and InfoSoils.

Fran Baker, Sustainability Manager at Arm, and Naomi Kingston, Head of Programmes for the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, set the scene for the day, giving us key insights into technologies for earth and discussing how we can understand the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Arm is striving to enable opportunities for a globally connected population. Their plan, outlined in their 2030 Vision, is to transform technology and services through collaborative partnerships and innovative projects in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  One of the collaborative partnerships that Arm is already working on is with the Ol Peteja Conservancy located in Kenya. They have very recently opened the Ol Pejeta Conservation Technology Hub in Kenya, a centre that aims to become a world-leading collaborative hub for the testing, support and development of technologies focused on wildlife protection.

The impact of AI on the Sustainable Development Goals is one of the technology areas that the 2030 Vision is focusing on.  Three relevant topics for Tech for Earth can be extracted from their recent Artificial Intelligence: The Potential for Good report:

  • Precision / Smart agriculture
  • Supply chain optimisation
  • Reducing food waste

Meanwhile, the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) are a centre of excellence for insight into nature. There are six areas on which the UNEP-WCMC focuses:

  1. Mainstreaming biodiversity into delivery of sustainable development
  2. Planning for places: supporting area-based planning and decision-making
  3. Supporting the transition to a healthy ocean
  4. Strengthening natural capital in private sector decision-making
  5. Securing a sustainable future for wildlife
  6. Supporting intergovernmental agreements on natural capital

It is not a field-based company but processes data for decision making. In terms of Tech for Earth, key statistics emerging from their research include:

  • 75% of the land area is very significantly altered undermining the well-being of 3.2 bn people. These lands have either become deserts, polluted or have been deforested.
  • 66% of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts. Fishing nets, global shipping and pollution running off the land are combining with climate change to further degrade the oceans.
  • >85% of wetland area has been lost in the name of agricultural expansion. Other major factors include road building, residential development and the building of large facilities.

The causes of these declines in nature can be split into two categories:

  • Indirect drivers – The indirect drivers are the things that need to be changed for us to work towards bettering the earth with four values and behaviours resulting in these indirect drivers
  1. Demographic and sociocultural
  2. Economic and technological
  3. Institutions and governance
  4. Conflicts and epidemics
  • Direct drivers – The direct drivers are the results of the indirect drivers in terrestrial, freshwater and marine life. These include:
  • Land/sea use change
  • Direct exploitation
  • Climate change
  • Pollution
  • Invasive alien species
  • Others

In their research, the UNEP-WCMC have determined the directional trend of nature’s contributions to people across a 50-year timescale across various regions. Alarmingly, in the diagram shown, many of the contributions were decreasing with only a handful eventually increasing over time.

UNEP-WCMC Nature contributions diagram CW Unplugged Tech for Earth

This is not just about saving the elephants. This is not just about saving the rhinos. This is about fundamentally changing the fabric of the world in a way that is unsustainable.

 - Naomi Kingston, Head of Programmes, UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre

Within UNEP-WCMC, they are working towards ‘bending the curve’, a term coined to determine how we can stop the state of biodiversity deterioriating and keep it ‘curving’ upwards. To be able to bend the curve, UNEP-WCMC explains that we need to define the action wedges, abate the threats and determine who can help with the restoration of biodiversity.

UN Bending the curve CW Unplugged Tech for Earth

As a collective, we used to focus on government bodies and what they were doing to help the earth but now we are realising that the government are unable to do this alone and we need the help of multinational businesses to help address the issues at hand.

With both Fran and Naomi discussing the ways in agriculture impacts our environment, attendees were introduced to the event’s two start-up ventures who are working on precision agriculture technologies: eCO-SENSE and InfoSoils.

Precision agriculture, a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops, is a growing market which currently sits at 10Bn GBP and is set to rise to 23Bn GBP by 2025.

eCO-SENSE diagram 1

Everyone needs food but not many people fully understand the global and local problems agriculture is facing today and how this is affecting global food security. A spin-out from the Cambridge Judge Business School, eCO-SENSE is working towards global food security, particularly in developing countries, by providing farmers with a low-cost soil sensing kit powered by a biophotvoltaic cell which allows farmers to make smarter decisions about their crops.

eCO-SENSE are working towards implementing their soil sensing kits in India which accounts for 6.5% of the precision agriculture market today. In 2016 agriculture accounted for 23% of India’s GDP, and employed 59% of the country's total workforce.  Despite this, it is still not achieving optimum yield in their three key areas of farming; rice, wheat and sugar cane.

Through customer analysis, eCO-SENSE determined that the kits would work best with low income, large area farms that have already adopted technology and small, rural farms that have not been introduced to many technologies. Both farms can cross-subside one another.

eCO-SENSE gets common sense.

 - Vivek Badiani, Co-Founder, eCO-SENSE

InfoSoils, the other start-up venture of the event discussed opening up big data for smallholders. They are developing technology, currently deployed in Kenya and Ghana, which combines the use of in-field methods with remote sensing to create live soil maps, helping the farmers and government read and receive data about the soil.

The problems that InfoSoils have determined are:

  • Inefficient use of fertiliser in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Lack of extension-workers and network for information
  • Expense and unreliable soil testing which can take up to three years to test

Adrian from InfoSoils explained that they are breaking down the solution to tackle the problems above in two parts.  Part one is inexpensive in-field sensor equipped devices located within the smallholdings which will detect key nutrients at certain key points and part two is the processing of data through remote sensing via satellites.

After many questions from the audience for both start-ups, all delegates split into four groups to answer the business and tech challenges proposed by each start-up facilitated by Cambridge Consultants, Plextek and Fresh Perspectiv.

The business and tech challenges proposed from eCO-SENSE were:

Business: India is a market with a high barrier to entry and farmers are difficult to reach. Do we target individual farmers or industries within the supply chain (e.g. FPOs)? B2C vs. B2B? How do we keep our social impact if we go B2B?

Technology: Which are the most important and valuable agricultural metrics for all types of crops? Temperature, moisture, salinity, Ph or individual nutrients (ammonia, nitrate, phosphate)? How can we provide data in an understandable format for farmers?

And the business and tech challenges proposed from InfoSoils were:

Business: How to monetise and gain value from data to ensure long term sustainability and accountability?

Technology: How to present data and translate it into something that is useful and usable for smallholder farmers?

Plextek workshop facilitating CW Unplugged Tech for Earth

Following the ideation workshops, the below actions were gathered for each start-up:

eCO-SENSE:

  • Before thinking about B2B & B2C marketing, they need to take a step back and define their customer and understand the market. With each customer seeing a different combination of benefits from the kits, they need to determine who is going to care about this technology and who this is going to be meaningful for.
  • The kits could be produced to focus on specific crops or to focus on particular regions, with pros and cons for either.
  • Could they provide a service model with the kits? This would confirm a working device and will guarantee a service fee.
  • Determine what the USP is. Communicating clearly why this kit is better than other kits or similar products on the market will benefit the team and help them determine their customer.
  • How can they present their data and suggestions to old school farmers? They could recruit local representatives to gain the trust of such farmers with these representatives introducing the technology to the farms themselves creating a buzz amongst the community.
  • There are three major barriers to the technology currently being used:
  1. Translation of data: How will this data be easy to understand for everyone
  2. Start & end of each season: How will the device power when there is nothing for it to read
  3. Issue of energy coming from plants: Will this affect the life of the plants in any way?

InfoSoils:

  • The key market for InfoSoils are small scale farms but what other markets can InfoSoils tap into?
  1. Niche farms that are producing a specific crop or first-timers. They may care and understand more about the analysis of their soil
  2. Input companies that may be worried about auditing and suppliers through the food chain so would like to check on the data making sure that they make good investments
  3. Governments who are looking further into agriculture and landscaping as a whole
  • What is InfoSoils’ USP? Could the USP for InfoSoils be within the packaging or technology itself?
  • How can InfoSoils make the data easy to understand, defying the barriers of illiteracy, connectivity and farming ethos? They could create interfaces, talking books or units that are understandable in a way that suits those who may not clearly understand the data.
  • Rather than giving the farmers just a set of data, they can offer recommendations and action plans.
  • InfoSoils can use the magic of social media to release pest and season information to a wider audience as well as sharing images and geotagging which would add to the richness of information from the data
  • Why are they farming, for profit or to subsist? Determine what farmers aim to achieve from their farming and work alongside them to help them achieve the best results they can.

CW will continue to work alongside these start-ups as they progress their businesses. Thank you to all our supporters and delegates who provided their insight! We invite you to register your interest for the next event in the CW Unplugged series, Tech for Fire, on 17 July!

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