Drones over the rice paddy: Ci-Agriculture brings smart tech to the field

Agriculture provides employment to about 41 percent of Indonesia’s workforce, according to data from the nation’s Central Agency for Statistics (BPS). But the majority of farmers operate on a subsistence level, and farming practices remain low-tech. This inevitably causes Indonesian farmers to fall behind their Southeast Asian peers in terms of productivity and yield. As a result, Indonesia still needs to import rice from countries like Thailand and Vietnam to meet the appetite of its large population.

Now, one local startup is setting out to bring digital innovation to the rice paddy. Ci-Agriculture takes up a concept known in the agricultural industry as “precision farming” and adapts it to an Indonesian context. Precision farming means using high-end tech such as sensors, aerial imagery, and big data analytics to help farmers make smarter decisions about when, what, and how to farm.

Applying big data to farms
Ci-Agriculture is actually a spin-off from an existing big data venture in Indonesia called Mediatrac. The parent company focuses on big data analytics for corporate clients and has big brands like the World Bank, Nestlé, Telkom Indonesia, and Bank Mandiri, to name a few.

Noticing that Indonesia’s productivity was lagging behind, Mediatrac saw potential in applying its methods to the local agricultural sector.

Regina Rivani Andani, who is now the agricultural scientist in charge of developing the Ci-Agriculture program, says the idea first took shape after chatting with a farmer who had three decades of experience farming Indonesian soil.

“He told us how long he had been a farmer, what his experiences were, and all the troubles he has faced until now,” says Andani. “This touched our hearts. Can we, big data entrepreneurs, internet and data analytics experts, who are so far removed from fields and pastures do anything to help them?”

Ci-Agriculture began its first trial last year on a rice paddy outside of Jakarta on the foot of Mount Gede.

“For about four months, we planted rice from the beginning to the harvest season,” says Andani. “We experimented with drones and weather sensors. During the planting season, we monitored the soil condition, created aerial photographs, and collected data. We also learned about local farming practices, the supply chain, the social dynamics of the people there. From there on the idea grew.”

Digital farming products
Based on the trial phase, Ci-Agriculture defined three products it wants to take forward. The first is Crop Accurate. By analyzing the condition of soil, weather, and growth progress, Crop Accurate gives farmers advice on when to plant, fertilize, or use pest control.

Ci-Agriculture’s second product focuses on the supply chain. “This tool is designed to build a bridge between farmers, distributors, the market, and the end customer,” says Andani. “It’s an information system for the farming community, in which each part of the supply chain will input real data via an app. We also integrate information such as commodity prices, which allows us to create predictions about prices and demand.”

The third product Ci-Agriculture wants to introduce is an insurance system modeled on the needs of farmers. According to Andani, the concept is similar to regular insurances, but uses data to determine the best insurance model.

“For example, we can analyze weather data up to 10 years into the past and propose our best insurance model based on these findings,” says Andani.

Thinking beyond corn and rice
Since October 2014, Ci-Agriculture has been testing its three products in a pilot project in Lampung, South Sumatra. The startup works together with 1,500 corn farmers in a total area of 1,300 hectares. “We are using this pilot to mature our technology and to learn about how it is used by the farmers and field workers,” explains Andani.

Right now, the company is still in its infancy, making it hard to predict whether its products can find widespread adoption in Indonesia. Andani describes the business model as “social entrepreneurship,” which implies that the company is not expecting significant returns in the near future.
Ci-Agricultrue plans to offer their software on a subscription-based model, and assumes not only farmers, but also end buyers, researchers, and the government could have an interest in signing up.

So far, Andani sees no direct competitors to Ci-Agriculture in Indonesia. Though she assumes there are companies whose services overlap with those of Ci-Agriculture. According to her, none of them offer an equally complete solution for smart farming with three product components.

One of the companies with similar offerings is TerralogiQ, a geospatial data analytics company that’s also targeting plantation management, but specializes in monitoring and workforce deployment and does not offer market data and insurance products.

Beyond working with small-scale farmers who raise food crops like rice or corn – the focus for their pilot and trial – Andani says the company is also targeting forestry and plantations.

“Plantations and productive forests in Indonesia also need a more advanced management system,” says Andani. “Predicting harvests and monitoring plants in the entire growth phase are the key to opening up investment opportunities and a higher productivity.”

Source : Tech in Asia