A new tech startup from Ukraine aims to improve the efficiency of small farmers with help from out-of-this-world technology – the Global Positioning System satellite network.
Michael Utkin, 36, is the founder of eFarmer, which has harnessed the GPS satellite-based navigation system to optimize the use of farm machinery on the ground.
“My mission in life is to spread smart agriculture innovations to farmers all over the world with mobile technologies,” Utkin says.
eFarmer has created an application for smartphones and tablets that works together with a satellite antenna, which is placed on farm machinery and is powered from its DC socket. The application gives the user precise information about their location, and indicates the most efficient way to work a field. According to Utkin, use of his application can save small farmers up to 10 percent of their costs on fuel and materials like fertilizers.
The company uses antennas made by various Ukrainian producers, but the team is also working to launch production of their own hardware for use with the app.
“I help farmers be more efficient,” Utkin told the Kyiv Post in a May 4 interview.
The idea isn’t new, though. Big agriculture machinery manufacturers like John Deere and Trimble started installing GPS equipment in tractors and combines years ago.
Small farmers, however, who own up to 100 hectares, rarely need to buy such big and expensive vehicles as those that giants like John Deere sell. With the emergence of new technologies it is now possible to produce similar systems to those used on expensive machines, but much more cheaply, Utkin says.
“Currently, there are no solutions (like ours) in this price range. We discovered some open water, where there are no competitors yet.”
And it seems that international investors like the idea: The European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Center in the Netherlands, which supports companies that apply space technology to non-space commercial areas, gave Utkin’s company eFarmer 50,000 euros to develop the new system, and even offered access to Dutch scientists to help out.
This, along with major investments from Ukrainian investors Borsch Ventures, and minor ones from three private persons, allowed Utkin’s team of 10 people located in three countries – the Netherlands, Ukraine and Germany – to develop their GPS system for farm machinery.
According to eFarmer’s estimates, there are 34 million small farmers in the world who do not use GPS for fieldwork. Apart from that, Utkin says he loves to work with small farmers, who understand how to “get corn for their children’s future” on their “family-owned farms.”
“I previously worked in a big IT company,” Utkin said. “Currently, I’m working with small farmers, and that’s very cool. They are honest people who earn an honest living. If something’s wrong they’ll tell you frankly.”
One such farmer in Germany has been helping the eFarmer team test out their software and hardware on his own farm.
“He has 100 hectares and 240 cows,” Utkin says. “And this guy works alone!”
Despite the farmer having automated almost everything, his end product, milk, still can’t compete in price with the milk produced by big enterprises – it’s always a few eurocents per liter more expensive. For that reason, any technologies that can help increase efficiency are always embraced by such small farmers, Utkin says.
For now, eFarmer’s client base is not huge, but the company is already cooperating with growers from about 30 countries and is breaking even, while ramping up its business.
One of the growers, Tomas Mores from the Czech Republic, has 15 hectares and two tractors. He uses eFramer on both of his machines, saying that it gives him “lots of possibilities for a very good price.”
“It can work as a web app or on almost any mobile or tablet with an Android operating system, so you don’t need any special hardware apart from the external antenna,” Mores told the Kyiv Post. “What’s very important for me is that it’s easy to export (data about) fields from the Czech land registry to the app.”
eFarmer’s current prices are 250 euros for the app license and 1,250 euros for an antenna. From September, however, the service will switch to a subscription-based system, with users being charged 20 euros per month and making a one-off 200-euro payment for each GPS antenna, which the company will start to produce itself.
The company’s website supports 10 languages, including English, Spanish, Ukrainian, Russian, Portuguese, and Polish.
Having worked as a vice president for over four years in his father Evgeni Utkin’s IT company, now named KM Core, and now for over two years in his agro-startup, Michael Utkin sees rich future growth in the combination of information technology and agriculture.
“Everything will be much smarter,” he says. “And eventually artificial intelligence will appear. It will communicate with tractors, which will also be robots, there will be drones flying about, and trucks will unload their cargo automatically as well.”
“The only thing the farmer might have to do is change the batteries.”
The article was first published at the Kyiv Post.
Photo by Volodymyr Petrov