Startup of the Week: Revolutionizing the agricultural sector

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OrbitCrops is a Saudi-based startup that utilizes emerging technologies in agriculture field. (Supplied)
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Updated 07 April 2020

Startup of the Week: Revolutionizing the agricultural sector

  • Ziliani stressed that without the help of KAUST “OrbitCrops would not exist”

With the world’s population expected to increase by two billion over the next 30 years, the demand for water is also expected to increase by 20 to 30 percent.

This rapid population growth is threatening to imperil food security, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region, where water has always posed significant challenges for governments.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, around 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawn each year around the world is used for agriculture. With the uncertainties of climate change, there is a pressing need for innovative agricultural solutions to help meet the demand for food in the coming decades as well as minimize the pressure on the natural environment.

OrbitCrops is a Saudi-based startup that utilizes emerging technologies in agriculture to help farmers optimize resources and increase the efficiency and productivity of their agricultural systems through a combination of satellite, modeling and weather forecast technologies.

The company was founded in early 2019 by Matteo Ziliani, his colleague Bruno Aragon and his brother Mirko Ziliani at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

“We provide farmers with a new way to monitor their fields. Using high-definition satellite images combined with weather data, we can analyze crop health and help farmers understand how much water they need and how much fertilizer they should use so that they can enhance crop productivity and performance,” Aragon, chief technology officer of OrbitCrops, told Arab News.

“We also predict the growth and development of crops and give farmers accurate crop yield forecasts if they continue with the use of our suggested practices,” Aragon added.

Aragon, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering at KAUST, developed along with his colleagues the company’s innovative algorithms in the last five years as part of his dissertation work.

By benefitting from OrbitCrops technology, farmers can save up to 50 percent of their regular water use, reduce by 30 percent their fertilizer use and nearly double crop yields, thus increasing revenue while reducing soil salinity buildup.

The KAUST-based company targets medium to large-scale farming operations. They are ready to offer their services in the government sector as well.

“When we started our research here in Saudi Arabia, we realized the huge amount of water wasted in agriculture, and that’s when we understood that something needed to change,” CEO Ziliani told Arab News.

According to the OrbitCrops team, the sector’s fundamental challenge is that 90 percent of the country’s limited water, which comes from non-renewable aquifers, is used for irrigation each year. This situation causes another problem, which is soil salinity buildup from over-irrigation, requiring additional water to flush the salt out.

An additional challenge is a lack or limited use of remote sensing to maximize crop yield and conserve resources, a technology they want to offer to farmers.

OrbitCrops was able to win prestigious competitions even before securing any clients. They were among the finalists at the TAQADAM startup accelerator program, powered by KAUST and SABB, and won second place at Startup Istanbul in 2019.

Ziliani stressed that without the help of KAUST “OrbitCrops would not exist.”

“We received a lot of help from KAUST with regards to mentorship, business guidance, and financial support, which assisted us in improving our products.”

As the only company in Saudi Arabia to offer this service, OrbitCrops is playing a leading role in establishing the market for use of satellite imagery and geospatial technology in the field of agriculture.

However, this privilege is also a burden as such technologies are not commonly used in the market. Hence, providers of innovative solutions like OrbitCrops bear the responsibility of spreading awareness about the use of these technologies in light of challenges facing potential clients.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in the local market is the technology barrier among farm managers. A lot of them are not willing to try this type of business,” Aragon said.

“The cure for this challenge is simplicity,” he explained.

To ensure simplicity, OrbitCrops made their data accessible via mobile devices. They developed an easy-to-use application that visually identifies areas where farmers should make the necessary adjustments to water and fertilizer application using weather and satellite data.

“We offer information in the simplest way possible to allow also less experienced users to engage with the interface,” said Aragon.

“We are also working on customizing the interface for Arabic speakers.”

Their business model is subscription-based, and their pricing varies according to each client’s choice of the data package.

Achieving food security is one of the main focuses of the Saudi Vision 2030 to promote sustainable agriculture.

“The situation in the Kingdom is changing. Vision 2030 is starting to take shape, so given the fact that we offer farmers the opportunity to save water and fertilizers, we align perfectly with Vision goals,” Aragon said.

He noted that big data and machine learning technologies are actively growing around the world and becoming cheaper, thus making their products more accessible as well as profitable.

“There is no better time to introduce this technology,” he said.

 


Life getting back to normal as restaurants, coffee shops reopen across KSA

It is also mandatory for restaurants and coffee shops to check the temperature of customers, and ensure a space of at least 1.5 meters between them. (AN photo by Fahad Al-Zahrani)
Updated 01 June 2020

Life getting back to normal as restaurants, coffee shops reopen across KSA

  • The government has laid out rules and regulations for employees returning to work in the state and private sectors

RIYADH: Restaurants and coffee shops in Saudi Arabia have reopened their dine-in sections to customers after more than two months of closure as a part of the lockdown imposed by the government to limit the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The reopening comes as a part of the second phase of a government plan, announced on May 26, to resume economic activity and gradually return to normal.
The second phase reduces the curfew and increases time allowed for people to venture out to 14 hours a day, and permitted the resumption of domestic flights.
Arab News toured different neighborhoods in Riyadh, and noticed a large number of people meeting their families and friends in restaurants and coffee shops. Most of them adhered to the government’s regulations of social distancing and were wearing face masks.
Siham Hassanain, CEO and founder of Siham International Trading Co. that owns and operates a chain of restaurants and coffee shops, said that she had not expected such a huge number of people to show up.
 “People want to go out, yet the coronavirus still exists. It still poses a danger and is still spreading.”
The Ministry of Municipal and Rural affairs posted a series of tweets regarding the protocol that restaurants and coffee shops should follow.
As per the protocol, they are obliged to limit the maximum number of clients who can sit at a table to 5 people unless members of one family. It is also mandatory for restaurants and coffee shops to check the temperature of customers, and ensure a space of at least 1.5 meters between them.
The regulations also advise food providers to use disposable items to serve food such as paper or plastic cups and dishes as well as electronic food menus. It also restricts some practices that may contribute to the spread of the virus such as serving Shisha or opening children’s playing areas in shops.
Hassanain said that most people were complying with government instructions, and most of the violations had come from teenagers and young adults.
Riham Ahmed, a 23-year-old student from Riyadh, said she chose to have her lunch with her friends in a restaurant despite fears expressed by her family.
“I’m taking all the preventive measures, putting (on) my face mask and staying away from crowded places, but I have to meet people and go outside, I can’t afford more time of isolation at home,” she said.
The government has also laid out rules and regulations for employees returning to work in the state and private sectors. For the time being, offices are not to be filled to capacity, with only 30 percent of employees allowed to occupy them at any given time, and those in offices must have their temperatures checked prior to entering the building.
The rules also state that handshakes are banned, face masks must be worn at all times, and employees must use sanitizer to wash their hands regularly throughout the day. Furthermore, employees with preexisting health conditions such as immune deficiencies, asthma or respiratory problems, or the morbidly obese, are all exempt from returning to work.

FASTFACT

The reopening comes as a part of the second phase of a government plan, announced on May 26, to resume economic activity and gradually return to normal.

The ministry also recommends that digital means be relied on as much as possible in order to minimize contact and try to prevent people from returning to their offices unless necessary. The full list of regulations is available on the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s website.
Sarah S, a government employee, told Arab News that she had gone back to work but that she was not sure how much she liked the environment. “The office was mostly empty, and it felt wrong. Like when you stay late on a Thursday or come in on a weekend. It’s very eerie and a little unsettling to see so many empty desks,” she said.
She added that while the office was taking every precaution, people were still cautious about the reopening and a constant sense of apprehension still filled the office.
“Everyone is on edge. It will take a lot of time for us to readjust to the idea of being in an office. Things that seemed so normal and mundane before, like handshakes, or sharing files, are all causes for concern now,” she said. However, some employees, who are still working from home, feel the opposite way and wish that they could be in the office instead.
Nawaf M, a human resources employee at a private company in Riyadh, said that everyone from his department was still working from home, but he would prefer to be in the office.
“I don’t like working from home. I feel like the office atmosphere is so important to maintaining a sense of professionalism and producing results,” he said.
While he realized that the threat of the coronavirus is still strong, he said that practicing good “pandemic etiquette” would ensure his safety and allow life to regain some normality again.