Startup of the Week: Revolutionizing the agricultural sector

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07/04/20

Ruba Obaid

  • Ziliani stressed that without the help of KAUST “OrbitCrops would not exist”

With the world’s population expected to increase by two billion over the next 30 years, the demand for water is also expected to increase by 20 to 30 percent.

This rapid population growth is threatening to imperil food security, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region, where water has always posed significant challenges for governments.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, around 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawn each year around the world is used for agriculture. With the uncertainties of climate change, there is a pressing need for innovative agricultural solutions to help meet the demand for food in the coming decades as well as minimize the pressure on the natural environment.

OrbitCrops is a Saudi-based startup that utilizes emerging technologies in agriculture to help farmers optimize resources and increase the efficiency and productivity of their agricultural systems through a combination of satellite, modeling and weather forecast technologies.

The company was founded in early 2019 by Matteo Ziliani, his colleague Bruno Aragon and his brother Mirko Ziliani at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

“We provide farmers with a new way to monitor their fields. Using high-definition satellite images combined with weather data, we can analyze crop health and help farmers understand how much water they need and how much fertilizer they should use so that they can enhance crop productivity and performance,” Aragon, chief technology officer of OrbitCrops, told Arab News.

“We also predict the growth and development of crops and give farmers accurate crop yield forecasts if they continue with the use of our suggested practices,” Aragon added.

Aragon, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering at KAUST, developed along with his colleagues the company’s innovative algorithms in the last five years as part of his dissertation work.

By benefitting from OrbitCrops technology, farmers can save up to 50 percent of their regular water use, reduce by 30 percent their fertilizer use and nearly double crop yields, thus increasing revenue while reducing soil salinity buildup.

The KAUST-based company targets medium to large-scale farming operations. They are ready to offer their services in the government sector as well.

“When we started our research here in Saudi Arabia, we realized the huge amount of water wasted in agriculture, and that’s when we understood that something needed to change,” CEO Ziliani told Arab News.

According to the OrbitCrops team, the sector’s fundamental challenge is that 90 percent of the country’s limited water, which comes from non-renewable aquifers, is used for irrigation each year. This situation causes another problem, which is soil salinity buildup from over-irrigation, requiring additional water to flush the salt out.

An additional challenge is a lack or limited use of remote sensing to maximize crop yield and conserve resources, a technology they want to offer to farmers.

OrbitCrops was able to win prestigious competitions even before securing any clients. They were among the finalists at the TAQADAM startup accelerator program, powered by KAUST and SABB, and won second place at Startup Istanbul in 2019.

Ziliani stressed that without the help of KAUST “OrbitCrops would not exist.”

“We received a lot of help from KAUST with regards to mentorship, business guidance, and financial support, which assisted us in improving our products.”

As the only company in Saudi Arabia to offer this service, OrbitCrops is playing a leading role in establishing the market for use of satellite imagery and geospatial technology in the field of agriculture.

However, this privilege is also a burden as such technologies are not commonly used in the market. Hence, providers of innovative solutions like OrbitCrops bear the responsibility of spreading awareness about the use of these technologies in light of challenges facing potential clients.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in the local market is the technology barrier among farm managers. A lot of them are not willing to try this type of business,” Aragon said.

“The cure for this challenge is simplicity,” he explained.

To ensure simplicity, OrbitCrops made their data accessible via mobile devices. They developed an easy-to-use application that visually identifies areas where farmers should make the necessary adjustments to water and fertilizer application using weather and satellite data.

“We offer information in the simplest way possible to allow also less experienced users to engage with the interface,” said Aragon.

“We are also working on customizing the interface for Arabic speakers.”

Their business model is subscription-based, and their pricing varies according to each client’s choice of the data package.

Achieving food security is one of the main focuses of the Saudi Vision 2030 to promote sustainable agriculture.

“The situation in the Kingdom is changing. Vision 2030 is starting to take shape, so given the fact that we offer farmers the opportunity to save water and fertilizers, we align perfectly with Vision goals,” Aragon said.

He noted that big data and machine learning technologies are actively growing around the world and becoming cheaper, thus making their products more accessible as well as profitable.

“There is no better time to introduce this technology,” he said.

This article was first published in Arab News

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