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Ag IoT in de Nile

We did a spat of advisory work in Egypt (in July), meeting corporate, U.N., government, and NGO bigwigs from Cairo and the surrounding area, all focused on food and food security. As seems to happen with every advisory trip to a foreign land, we arrived both earnest and prepared, but left with more important lessons that we should’ve seen coming.

Special thanks to Land O’Lakes Venture 37, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Abt Associates Egypt, SEKEM, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and the Knowledge Economy Foundation.

If software’s eating the world, IoT in particular wants to eat…the things we eat. Whether precision ag, soil sensing, field analysis, drone photography, or any other facet, IoT would finally deliver Silicon Valley technomancy to literal earth, bridging the gap between unrelenting digital progress and our most fundamental biological need: food.

But wait, ag IoT works, right?

We remember the frothy mid/late-2010s narrative well: of all the Things to Internet, agriculture would get revolutionized hardest. John Deere was leading the drive, growing its stock price as high as an elephant’s eye, and the world would reap the harvest, 1s and 0s solving food forever. It's a fantastical, believable tale of progress, and in America, it’s even somewhat true! We can confirm that the following ag tech works almost universally well for U.S. farmers:<

  1. Transaction management. Basic e-commerce, ordering, recordkeeping, and, to an extent, integration.
  2. Asset tracking. Where’s my ag input?
  3. Dispatch. Find and direct drivers, labor, and equipment.
  4. As-applied maps. Where have I driven my tractor, harvester, or team?

On top of that, other, bigger-swinging techs work for some growers:

  1. Precision ag input control. When highly automated in the right environment, some farmers see benefits.
  2. Farm management systems. Highly-detailed, can be helpful, as long as you stay within the system.
  3. Climate monitoring. If your climate varies a bunch (or is on a changing trajectory), this data will help you know what to plant, where, and when.

There are myriad other ag technologies, but if we’re looking for simple, novel, obvious, day-to-day helpers, these have been helping grow America.

Egypt’s ag tech transformation potential

Westerners think of Egypt as an endless desert cloven by the world’s largest river, both banks festooned with camels, pyramids, hieroglyphics, palms, mummies, and…regional tension. The land of controlled irrigation!

Instead, think of the life of Egypt as 105 million people teeming within the habitable zones 20 km off the banks of the Nile and its tributaries. Egypt is dense. These characteristics put Egypt in an interesting position to employ ag tech:

  1. Egypt has bypassed legacy infrastructure (no wires)

  2. Egypt can bypass legacy digital (no laptops, local files, or slow internet)

  3. Nation-wide mobile paradigm (everyone’s got a phone), population-wide 5G coverage already established

  4. All arable land covered by 5G (something currently not practical in the U.S.)

Given Egypt’s population and agricultural density, ag tech should work better here than in the US!

Behold, transformative Io—wait…

Every new technology is like a seed: an embryo of true utility fed by an endosperm of promise coated in slick hype. Not all seeds sprout everywhere, and not all technologies can take root like they do (or don’t) here. We learned that the following ag technologies either don’t apply in Egypt, or don’t solve the problems Egyptian agriculture professionals actually have. Some of them are big money in the U.S.:

  1. Soil sensors. Turns out it’s very difficult to do anything with a ton of data about a tiny area in a climate that’s already well understood. Worse, if these sensors are anything but dirt cheap, it’ll be extremely difficult to get any sort of return on investment.
  2. Field analysis tools and farm management systems for precision ag. Huuuuge data input burden. Should I feed the machine with data it wants to get uncertain insights, or should I do something more tangible? Worse, what happens when I need to change systems?
  3. Drone photography. Drones attempt to replace analysis services typically done by interns in the U.S. or laborers in Egypt, but it seems people do a better job for less money.
  4. Precision ag input technology. The efficiency gains are not worth the work or the capital expenditure especially. Farmers won't dial back inputs to risk lower yield, and it takes a ton of arm-twisting to make them try.
  5. Continuous remote surveillance. Digital surveillance tools brought marketers closer to their prospective customers, but spying on your farm in the same way with digital tooling adds a layer between farmer and field that didn’t exist before. Farmers want to get out there and see results first hand.

Even though many of our colleagues understood and desired the promise of these technologies, they don’t solve an urgent need presented by the context of modern Egyptian agriculture.

Ag tech that works for Egyptians

In conversation, Egyptians cut to the quick in a way that’s startling for circumspect, indirect midwestern American sensibilities. About a day after landing in Cairo, it became desert-sun clear that we had to disabuse ourselves of all the flashy gear and high-falutin’ concepts we’d trained up on—not because Egyptians weren’t going to understand them, but because they already did understand them and they knew they weren’t the solutions to the problems they have today.

This was a golden opportunity to shut up. When asked, “what have you seen work?” our Egyptian friends answered with a list of solutions similar to what works in the U.S., but with different context about why they work:

  1. Bill pay. In the U.S, a lot of farmers’ wives do the bookkeeping, and the same can be true in Egypt. Digital solutions in this realm honestly don’t solve just for the financial transaction or for any kind of bookkeeping difficulty, they solve for its surrounding frictions. How do I apply for financing? Don't make me drop off checks! Don't just set up deals, connect the process!
  2. Asset tracking. We think of this as knowing where stuff is or should go because we need things here or want things there. I can drop a pin and Uber will take me there. Asset tracking in Egypt was less about the hyper-specific problem of finding something than about the bigger problem of knowing where agricultural products are (and for how long) so they don't spoil in transport. Asset tracking tech can facilitate dispatch in agriculture.
  3. Market access. Your family has grown citrus for decades. You may have even had the same buyer for those decades. With your next truckload coming to fruition, is your traditional buyer’s price really the best price (or terms) you can get? In theory, market matchmaking services should yield some economist’s dream level of optimization, but it takes careful practice to ensure they don’t become extractive monopsonies themselves.
  4. Good old UX. We heard about several interfaces so terrible, so ancient, or so unsupported, people went out of their way to either avoid them or input data into the competitors’ tools instead of the OEM one. Mobile UI and performance fundamentals will absolutely make or break any digital offering’s success here.

What’s the lesson? Tech isn’t about stuff, it’s about help. Look at this list of Egyptian ag tech startups and see what they’re focused on. Not a lot of big capital is there?

At Next Mile we’ve surfaced the practical utility of dozens of well-meaning IoT technologies. Contact us if you need a boost to find product/market fit for your IoT offering.

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If this speaks to a problem you’re facing, we'd love to see if we can help you further.