The availability of national weather data in the developing world has dropped to near zero in many places because the equipment is expensive to install and maintain and because the data is offline once it has been logged. The high costs are driven by many factors, including the cost of the sensing itself, the shipping, the scaffolding to hold it, the education needed to configure it, the need to send personnel to collect the data manually. But while weather data is important, data on crop productivity and soils are in many ways more critical for the agricultural value chain, and even more scarce.
Adam Wolf discussed how his company, Arable, aims to address some of these challenges. Arable is an integrated measurement and communications platform that addresses these data challenges. The platform is designed to be low cost, self-powered, and easy to install and maintain even in challenging environments.
Adam Wolf studied agronomy and agricultural economics at UC Davis (MSc ’01), expecting to work in a cooperative extension in California. Instead, he went on to conduct field research in Kazakhstan supported by a USAID grant to study opportunities in livestock development and climate mitigation. Such a vast landscape led to research linking satellite data and plant growth forecasting models, which was the subject of his PhD at Stanford (’10) under Chris Field (currently chair of IPCC WG2). Ultimately, agricultural systems are too complex to learn enough from satellites, so Dr Wolf developed the Arable as a postdoc at Princeton, which led to $4M in NSF funding into monitoring smallholder agriculture in East Africa. After recognizing the wide range of opportunities for data-driven decisions in agriculture enabled by Arable, the company was incorporated in 2014, where Dr Wolf serves as CEO.
Arable aims at empowering natural resource managers to make informed decisions through superior data collection and synthesis. There is substantial friction on the pace of agricultural development imposed by a lack of measurement and synthesis. Still, the need for data to make informed decisions has never been greater, owing to the need to expand agricultural production even as climate change adds uncertainty to many factors in farm operations. Finally, many pieces are in place, particularly the ubiquity of mobile devices and cloud-based software, to make great strides in building economic opportunities and reducing food insecurity using data-driven approaches.
Data on weather, soils, and crop productivity is critical for farmers to make decisions such as when to plant and harvest, but also for seed breeders to select varieties that are resilient to heat and drought stress, for agronomists and crop consultants to give ongoing advice on management, for lenders and insurers to evaluate baseline risk, for governments and NGOs to give warning of disaster, and for ag input providers to find and develop new market opportunities. Although the insights from these data and the form they are presented are distinct for each actor, the need for data to make decisions is as basic as the need for roads to market crops.
The availability of national weather data in the developing world has dropped to near zero in many places because the equipment is expensive to install and maintain and because the data is offline once it has been logged. The high costs are driven by many factors, including the cost of the sensing itself, the shipping, the scaffolding to hold it, the education needed to configure it, the need to send personnel to collect the data manually. But while weather data is important, data on crop productivity and soils are in many ways more critical for the agricultural value chain, even more scarce.
Pulsepod was founded by an agronomist and a hydrologist with many years of experience in the developing world. Pulsepod solves several interlocking problems. The Pulsepod is an integrated measurement and communications platform that is designed to be low cost, self-powered, and easy to install and maintain even in the challenging places where we work. The Pulsepod is packed with many sensing capabilities “off the shelf” for monitoring crops and weather, with low-cost accessories for measuring soils and water. The particular set of measurements on the Pulsepod are designed for data-driven applications in agriculture and natural resource management, where we have experience in what data is needed to drive decisions.
Finally, we recognize most applications that use these data will be cloud-based software for users with mobile devices. We made a backend infrastructure that makes it easy for developers to make custom apps using Pulsepod data that add value to their customers in all of the diverse ways that these users interface with technology.
We see significant synergies between private sector actors whose incentives are aligned with the farmer to build value in agricultural production. Clearly public sector actors such as governments and development agencies have a desire for data, for example, to drive weather forecasts or coordinate disaster relief. However, for a network to take root and grow, there must be private sector value in the insights and opportunities created by the data. One key constituency in the private sector is agricultural lending and micro-insurance, which often is data-constrained in defining baseline risks and verifying claims. Growth of this industry, which is critical to shouldering risk from farmers, is limited by a lack of geographic coverage of data, which in turn reduces customer satisfaction and adoption.
Second, this insurance is part of a suite of agricultural services, including inputs, advice, and marketing, that also build agricultural value. These services are last-mile distributors, and benefit from improved customer engagement, e.g. through mobile devices, with ongoing advice relying on timely weather data, and monitoring and evaluation of crop outcomes to improve product offerings. We envision that data that serves multiple constituencies and ultimately adds value to the farmer, will create the necessary conditions for creation and expansion of information networks that add resilience to farming systems.