How technology is making us more efficient at growing food

June 26, 2017

By LAUNCH Editorial Team

Growing food is about much more than putting a meal on a plate. Producing high quality food has repercussions on the economy, our health, and our educational outcomes… in fact, agricultural production and nutrition is essential to the success of society.

Modern technologies are revolutionising the way people grow food, from green-thumbed gardeners and small-scale farmers to industrial-scale food producers. These advances are changing the ways growers go about their day-to-day work, helping them to produce healthier crops in higher quantities.

Foodwall, an Australia-based LAUNCH Food innovation, is one such business helping people to maximise space to grow more food in much smaller areas.

“About three years ago it came to my attention that Melbourne’s food bowl is shrinking: we just don’t know how to feed ourselves. This is something we’re seeing repeated around the world as we build on the fertile lands around cities. If we lose our connection with the food we eat and where it comes from, we’ll have a generation of people who aren’t able to be self-sustaining, which is a real cause for concern,” says Marc Noyce, CEO of Foodwall.

“We wanted to be part of the solution to this problem, which is why we created Foodwall. I hear people say they haven’t got time or space to grow food and that they would even manage to kill a plastic plant – Foodwall dismantles some of those barriers people put up when it comes to growing food at home.”

“It’s essentially a wall of plant pots, so if you’ve got a small balcony or garden it can easily double or triple the amount of room you have to grow food. To talk you through how it works, it’s a modern version of a wicking garden bed, so you water the plants from the bottom up, and the plants absorb water through capillary action, a bit like a tree’s roots. It’s simple to use and can be set it up in a matter of minutes without any special information. You only need to water it once a week, and it uses half the amount of water as the average vegetable garden would require, so even the worst of green thumbs can keep it going,” says Marc.

“In our show garden in Melbourne, we set up a Foodwall in a 3m2 space and managed to grow 130kg of food in 12 months. That’s the annual vegetable consumption of the average Australian!”

“It’s currently being used in schools, community gardens and back yards across Australia, but we’re working on a scaled-up version for use in commercial farms. The idea is simple to use, scalable and water-efficient, so we see this technology having the greatest impact in areas that are flood-prone or have low water quality. It can essentially be used anywhere in the world to allow people to grow a sustainable and consistent supply of food, enabling them to be self-sufficient even in the most challenging conditions.”

Helping people to grow food in challenging circumstances is also the aim of Telenor Pakistan, another LAUNCH Food innovator. The telecommunications company, the largest mobile communication and financial services provider in rural Pakistan, developed its mobile agriculture program in January 2016 in line with its vision of “Empowering Societies”.

“We could see there was a lot of scope for Telenor, with its unparalleled reach, to provide digital services to uplift and add value to the food and agriculture value chain by working with farmers. Approximately one quarter of Pakistan’s GDP comes from the agricultural sector, so any initiative that benefits farmers also has a wider benefit for the country as a whole,” says Habib Saqib, Telenor Pakistan’s Head of Mobile Agriculture.

“We’ve developed a program that takes a two-pronged approach. The first is called Prosperous Farmer, which is an educational tool for farmers. It takes information about their location and crops and advises them about the weather forecast, offering guidance on environmental issues that could affect them. It gives them crop-specific advice on the best way to grow their crops with given resources, how best to harvest it, and how to store it once it is harvested to ensure the product remains at its optimum quality. As Pakistani farmers are low on digital literacy, we’ve ensured our voice based mobile service is as customised as possible to the individual using it, and that it is intuitive and easy to use”, says Habib. “The end outcome is to enable food producers to improve their yields, income and grow more nutritious, high quality foods.”

“The second part of our innovation is called Farm to Palm, an e-commerce marketplace. One of the big issues facing farmers in Pakistan is being able to access markets to sell their produce. Many people rely heavily on middle-men to transport their food to market, therefore reducing their income and having consumers pay a hefty price for the food. A lot of money is taken away by the people who really don’t add much value to the process, and actually makes it harder for people to afford high quality, nutritious food,” explains Habib.

“What Farm to Palm aims to do is to remove the need for the middle-man, putting farmers in direct contact with the people who consume the food they produce through their mobile phone and internet. All consumers need to do is log on, purchase the food, and have it delivered to their doorstep,” says Habib.

“Everyone wins: the consumers get access to cheaper, healthier produce, and the farmers get to manage the sales of their produce thereby increasing their income levels. This can have longer-term benefits for the farmers’ businesses; many farmers still rely heavily on manual, paper-based transaction processes, which make it hard for them to access services where they need to prove their creditworthiness, such as accessing personal or business loans. With Farm to Palm, farmers will have a digitised history of the payments they’ve received and made as part of their business, which acts as evidence when they go to use these services.

“We’ve seen fantastic support for both elements of the initiative to date. There are around 20 million small-holder farmers in Pakistan, and already 2.5 million farmers are using Prosperous Farmer to improve their agriculture practices. For Farm to Palm, we conducted a pilot in the capital (Islamabad) last summer and the feedback was immensely positive. The consumers loved the fruits and vegetables we brought to them through Farm to Palm from different parts of the country since the quality was great and prices extremely reasonable. I would love to see these products reach their maximum potential in Pakistan and then be replicated in other countries with a similar agriculture-driven economy and technology challenges.”

In Indonesia, where farming also plays an integral role in the economy, a very different kind of mobile technology has been making its mark. Salah Sukkarieh, a researcher at the University of Sydney, has been working on a project called Digital Systems for Horticulture Crops, which introduces mobile-driven robotic technology to Indonesian farmers.

“I found myself learning more about farming and the issues farmers face, and with my background in data analysis and technology, I wanted to understand more about how technology could assist them in their work. It’s not just about reducing labour, but also about assisting farmers with understanding more about their crops or animals to achieve better results.” Salah says.

“I don’t see our innovation as being a solution as much as a way of applying existing technology in a new way. The robots are able to monitor and spray crops, round-up livestock, check for diseases or issues that need to be dealt with, and report back to the farmers to implement the findings. Farmers can manage the robot remotely using their mobile phone, but the robots can also be used in an autonomous manner,” says Salah. “Our technology doesn’t require a lot of data or an internet connection in the field: once the technology is installed it runs easily in the background and only needs to be updated when the algorithms need to be trained to deal with new types of crops a farmer might be growing.

“While we’re still working on a business model that will enable us to scale the technology, I see it being very customisable in the future. In a country like Indonesia, there’s a lot of diversity when it comes to the types of crops and how they’re grown. We’ll be able to educate farmers and others on the grounds to build robots that are adapted to their specific needs. Ultimately what we want is to enable people to grow the food they enjoy in a way that is as nutritious and as commercially viable as possible.”

Keep up to date with news from all of our LAUNCH Food innovators here.