Drones and AI move Africa’s farmers on to greener pastures

How can African farmers optimise production? We examine how South African company Aerobotics is helping farmers advance with the use of drone technology and AI.


Image : Aerobotics

In 2014, Cape Town-born Benji Meltzer identified a huge gap in one of Africa’s key markets – the continent’s 33m smallholder farmers had no crop data to help them improve their farming. Meltzer and his old university friend James Paterson, who grew up on a citrus farm in the Western Cape, had just finished master’s degrees in aerobotics and neurotechnology overseas. They returned to the Cape that year, drawing on their expertise to start a company that they hoped would transform farming. 

“We understood that there was an opportunity to help enable farmers to be more data driven. We believe that farming is a super risky business and there’s a lot of opportunities to help farmers optimise the way they farm,” says Meltzer, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aerobotics.

Making the market

Africa holds more than 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and the agricultural sector employs about two-thirds of the continent’s working population. But back in 2014, an extensive record of crop data did not exist, so Meltzer and Paterson turned to aerial imagery and drone technology – which was relatively new at the time – to collect it. Such technology can help to assess characteristics of the plants that can’t be seen by the naked eye or which would take too long to review. 

Seven years later, Aerobotics has around 12,000 users on its Aeroview mobile phone platform. It operates AI and drones for farm yield management in over 18 countries. The company employs more than 80 people and has a proprietary data set amounting to 100m trees and more than 1m citrus fruit crops. Using this dataset, the company – comprising agronomists, engineers, product developers, creatives and customer service experts – helps farmers, investors and insurers improve production and profitability. 

In January, the company raised $17m in an oversubscribed Series B fundraising round, led by South Africa-founded global internet giant Naspers. The funds will be invested in developing the company’s offering for its existing customers, says Meltzer. 

Aerobotics currently focuses on fruit, nut and tree crops. The multitude of factors affecting yield can present challenges for farmers. “Whether it’s pests accumulating, disease, irrigation or nutrition problems, there’s a lot of potential issues that are developing and your ability to detect those issues early enough is very limited using traditional farming techniques,” he says.

A farmer views a diseased leaf on a mobile phone using advanced AI technology.
Aerobotics’ advanced technology allows farmers to view crop disease with high precision and use artificial intelligence to make decisions on how to treat it.

That’s where multispectral imaging comes in. “If you see the damage that a pest has granted on a tree, the pest has probably already left, and it’s too late. To assess a large-scale farm at scale is extremely expensive and infeasible using traditional methods. So as a result, farmers often just farm preventatively, where you assume the worst and you treat for that, and it’s inefficient in terms of resource usage, environmental impact, spraying for pests or disease, etc,” he adds.

“The data that we are capturing is extremely high resolution; it’s millions of pixels per image and making a decision off of that can be very time consuming and subjective.” Aerobotics uses artificial intelligence to speed up those decisions.

Aerobotics allows its customers to adopt “precision agriculture”, where each crop is treated according to its individual performance, instead of being treated the same way as all the other crops. Data provides information about individual crops and helps farmers intervene at the right time in the phenological cycle. 

Small-scale farmers in Africa also have infrastructure challenges, especially in remote regions, where access to knowledge is fragmented and internet access can be limited. Some farmers rely on traditional tribal methods passed down over the generations.

There can also be financial obstacles,” Meltzer says. “If you wanted to lend money to smallholder farmers in the Congo for example, you’d have no sense of the creditworthiness or likelihood of that farmer being able to pay that back, and there’s all sorts of innovation happening now around making that more achievable.”

Farmers sign up to use Aerobotics’ software on a seasonal basis, paying a per hectare per season rate. Depending on the specific case, the company prescribes drone flights to the farmer at certain points in the growth cycle, before collecting the data and feeding it to the farmer via Aeroview to review.

The company also provides satellite data and aerial imagery. Farmers can collect data using their mobile devices on the ground and relay it to Aerobotics through the app. 

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Spreading its wings

Although Aerobotics operates in 18 countries, most of its customers are in the US, Australia and South Africa, where it has offices. It has another base in Portugal too, where the company is heavily focused on citrus crops. South Africa’s Western Cape is a key region, with Aerobotics working with farmers in Citrusdal, as well in the north in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal in the east.

Meltzer wants to continue focusing on the company’s core markets and focus on building its network with other stakeholders in the supply chain, such as crop insurers, banks, input suppliers and retailers. In the long term, he’s interested in taking his business to North Africa, including Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have sizeable citrus acres. He’d also consider Kenya, where there are areas with large nut plantations.

Aerobotics has seen growth during the pandemic. Globally, the agriculture sector has been protected due to the food security it provides and the company’s larger clients have been quick to adopt new technology when human labour is harder to come by. But there have been some operational challenges when delivering certain products to customers. There have been limitations on travel, and getting drone pilots to remote areas has been a significant challenge.

Addressing climate change

As well as Covid-19, climate change, economics and politics can also pose challenges for farmers. To address climate change, Aerobotics is developing a product to help farmers manage irrigation more efficiently. The product Meltzer and his team are developing will help monitor water-related stress on a plant-by-plant basis, which will help farmers address climate challenges, as well as pest and disease control.

“Rather than just blanket-supplying your irrigation, it will help determine where irrigation related problems are, whether it’s from overwatering, underwatering, etc, and they will be able to make decisions off the back of that data.”

There are ways for farmers to lower their carbon footprints. Growers often spray pesticides on their crops in bulk, but Meltzer says his product can help farmers reduce that resource usage through only applying chemicals when necessary by referring to crop data, thus reducing carbon footprints and averse environmental impact. The company is also trying to raise understanding of measures of biomass to help its clients assess how carbon friendly their farming is.

But the wider goal for Aerobotics is to help farmers use only what’s necessary when it’s necessary, which, from a cost as well as a sustainability standpoint, could revolutionise the sector.

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