In the space of a single year, South African agritech enterprise Aerobotics has won numerous awards and made strategic inroads into the massively competitive US agriculture industry. Propelled by world-leading technology, the South African success story is poised to mushroom into a truly global data and analytics software company serving the entire agriculture value chain.

Aerobotics, which as little as a year ago was nominated as one of South Africa’s most exciting startups, turns imagery into actionable data so that any issues on the farm, or elsewhere in the value chain, can be identified and resolved before they become problems. In essence, Aerobotics exposes what the naked eye cannot see in order to solve problems and make accurate projections, translating into improved yields and profitability.

The company’s CEO, James Paterson, says the business is ready to build on its highly successful launch in the US and strategically drop further roots and extend services in numerous regions around the world. These include both North and South America, South Africa, Australia and others. In addition to riding the demand for its world-leading technology, Paterson says strategic partnerships throughout the agriculture value chain could become “game changers”.

Coming as no surprise, the company scooped up a host of awards in 2019, including joint first prize in the IBM Hackathon challenge, being named in the Nanalyze Top 10 Artificial Intelligence Startups in Africa, winning the President Macron award for the Most Innovative African Startup for the AfricaArena Viva Technology Challenge, taking the SAVCA Industry Award in the Start-up/ Venture Capital category, scooping up the IITPSA’s “Technology Excellence Award”, impressively taking top honours in InVivo’s Quest Iberia Award for technological innovation, winning best app for Aeroview InField from and being named the Most Innovative Entrepreneurs in SA at the FNB Business Innovation Awards 2019.

Setting the pace for international peers

“The awards are obviously a testament to the solid proposition we offer and validation of the technology that we have and continue to develop. Beating out international counterparts in the InVivo Quest Iberia awards, for instance, proves to us that we really are onto something great, leading our international peers,” says Paterson.

“However, we like our work to speak for itself. We are offering real products that work and deliver value. Globally, we have more than 140 000 hectares of farmland on the platform, and growing every week. We have a real product stack, delivering real value to real clients.

“We are at the forefront of developing the best and most cutting-edge technology out there, to solve the largest and most complex problems. This is just the beginning – going forward, we are switching it up to solve even bigger problems, problems that have been around for decades.”

2019 saw Aerobotics enter the US with the mammoth task of competing in one of the most competitive markets on the planet. Fast forward a year and the company has 29 000 hectares of US farmland, mainly in California and Florida, on its platform, having signed up some of the biggest and most respected names in agriculture. “The brand went from being unknown to one that holds weight in the US citrus industry. It is validation that our product works in different markets,” says Paterson.

Aerobotics knew that there were several companies competing for market share in the US, and so it adopted a strategy of listening first – to find out what the single-biggest problem was in the market. It turned out to be yield estimation, which was notoriously inaccurate and expensive – and so Aerobotics has started to solve that problem.

Seasonal accuracy for farmers

“We gave our product team the task to develop a yield estimation product. It is brand new technology – no one else is doing it. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, and other inputs such as industry growth curves, historical yields and future projections, we project the size and colour of the fruit yield throughout the season.

“The product allows decision making to happen far earlier in the season, which enables deals and forward contracts and much more efficiency down the value chain. All with 97% accuracy,” explains Paterson.

The yield estimation tool separates Aerobotics from the crowd, and with the technology working successfully in two hemispheres, it provides a compelling proposition to grow into new markets.

“Make no mistake, 2020 is going to be a huge year. Strategically we will expand in our core territories of SA and the US. We want to gain deeper market penetration in California and Florida, and then put down deeper roots and develop our business in other states where we currently have clients, including Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Washington.

“Looking at Latin America we have significant interest already from Peru, Chile, Brazil and Mexico, while we are aiming to launch and expand in Australia on the other side of the planet, not to forget European markets such as Portugal,” says Paterson.

According to the CEO, it makes commercial sense to have operations in different corners of the planet due to the seasonal nature of agriculture as it keeps the revenue stream growing in all twelve months of the year, and also allows Aerobotics to keep developing products and improving algorithms year-round.

Pursuing opportunities throughout value chain

Paterson also says that 2020 will see Aerobotics build on its current strategy of pursuing opportunities all through the value chain, from growers, to packers, distributors, retailers, chemical companies, as well as insurance and financial services providers.

“We will be building our global partnership teams – and look for partnerships which have massive potential. Where is the data most applicable? Technology has the potential to solve massive problems and unlock previously unimagined efficiencies. We will continue to drive this quest at the leading edge of technology,” he says.

The world is hungry for this, but also skeptical about promises that can’t be fulfilled. To this end, says Paterson, with many seasons in SA and a full season in the US, Aerobotics is building a large bank of data from well over 40-million trees that “tells a compelling return on investment story”.

Engagement with stakeholders was a recurring theme in 2019, with a series of events in the US called Trees & Tech, where the company engaged with farmers, scientists, drone pilots and communities, and the Birdy in the Sky golf tour around South Africa – the charming play on words alludes to their drone technology – where they networked with customers and other industry stakeholders. The company plans many more engagement opportunities in the years to come.

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