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Alphabet’s latest moonshot is a field-roving, plant-inspecting robo-buggy

Alphabet (you know… Google) has taken the wraps off the latest “moonshot” from its X labs: A robotic buggy that cruises over crops, inspecting each plant individually and, perhaps, generating the kind of “big data” that agriculture needs to keep up with the demands of a hungry world.

Mineral is the name of the project, and there’s no hidden meaning there. The team just thinks minerals are really important to agriculture.

Announced with little fanfare in a blog post and site, Mineral is still very much in the experimental phase. It was born when the team saw that efforts to digitize agriculture had not found as much success as expected at a time when sustainable food production is growing in importance every year.

“These new streams of data are either overwhelming or don’t measure up to the complexity of agriculture, so they defer back to things like tradition, instinct or habit,” writes Mineral head Elliott Grant. What’s needed is something both more comprehensive and more accessible.

Much as Google originally began with the idea of indexing the entire web and organizing that information, Grant and the team imagined what might be possible if every plant in a field were to be measured and adjusted for individually.

Image Credits: Mineral

The way to do this, they decided, was the “Plant buggy,” a machine that can intelligently and indefatigably navigate fields and do those tedious and repetitive inspections without pause. With reliable data at a plant-to-plant scale, growers can initiate solutions at that scale as well — a dollop of fertilizer here, a spritz of a very specific insecticide there.

They’re not the first to think so. FarmWise raised quite a bit of money last year to expand from autonomous weed-pulling to a full-featured plant intelligence platform.

As with previous X projects at the outset, there’s a lot of talk about what could happen in the future, and how they got where they are, but rather little when it comes to “our robo-buggy lowered waste on a hundred acres of soy by 10 percent” and such like concrete information. No doubt we’ll hear more as the project digs in.

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Black Sea Wheat Exports to Hold Steady, Poll Shows

Wheat exports from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan will hold steady in 2020-21, a Reuters poll showed, due to a larger crop in Russia and Kazakhstan, making competition easier with the European Union, where output is forecast lower.

Most of the wheat exported from these three countries is moved via the Black Sea to customers in the Middle East and Africa, which are also major markets for European wheat.

One agriculture consultant who responded to the survey and wished to remain anonymous told Reuters that Russia likely will harvest less wheat with high protein this year, but its wheat will still be in high demand due to the EU’s declining crop size in 2020-21.

Wheat exports from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan are forecast to remain stable at 60.2 million tonnes in the season that is due to start on July 1, the poll of 17 analysts, officials and traders showed.

The combined 2020-21 wheat crop of the three countries will rise 0.8% to 115.2 million tonnes, the median estimate showed.

Russia has threatened to place a quota on exported wheat in 2020-21 in attempt to control domestic food prices. This could be an advantage for Ukrainian traders, according to a trader in Kiev. However, he added that unfavorable weather conditions could have a negative impact on Ukraine’s output.

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BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them? ”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early, and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle, and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35 percent in soybeans, 70-100 percent in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25 percent,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly twenty thousand. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4M seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics, and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

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Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields, and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollack

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech, and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say “wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration in his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience at Startup Battlefield in Africa in Lagos in 2018.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture

“We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer, and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics, or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potential partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

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Russia Could Halt Grain Exports from Mid-May to July: Ministry

Russia could temporarily halt grain exports until the end of June if shipments reach limits introduced by the government much ahead of schedule, the country’s agriculture ministry said on Friday, according to Interfax.

“The quota was introduced for the period from April 1 to June 30, 2020. After it is depleted, the supplies outside the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will be stopped for this period,” the news agency quoted Deputy Agriculture Minister Oksana Lut as saying.

Given the current pace, exports will be suspended in mid-May, the official said. As of Saturday, less than 4.2 million tons of grain remained available from the 7-million-ton cap.

The deputy minister added that exceptions will not be made for any companies.

Moscow introduced the restrictions at the end of March in order to secure the domestic food market in the “current economic conditions” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the government decree, exports of wheat and meslin, rye, barley, and corn (except for grain seeds) should not exceed 7 million tons. However, the measures do not apply for member states of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

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Million Rose Flowers Destroyed Every Day in Russia as Pandemic Kills Demand

Russian florist are destroying a million roses a day after the coronavirus caused a slump in sales, with fears of worse to come as self-isolation measures take hold across the country, Reuters reports.

According to rose growers, with non-essential shops ordered to shut, they are among many businesses fighting for survival and have turned to online sales in an attempt to recoup some of their lost revenue.

In a country where flowers are so popular that some florists operate 24 hours a day, 1.2 million roses are being destroyed daily, the Russian Greenhouse Union said.

“Everyone has tears in their eyes that they have to be thrown away: they were all grown, they’re all alive,” Yulia Charyshkina, director and owner of the Podosinka greenhouse complex, told the news agency.

President Vladimir Putin said in late March that Russia would embark on a special non-working period to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus and people should work from home if they could.

The move, which forced most businesses to shut except those deemed essential, has stopped many firms from working and squeezed profits as most consumers sit out the coronavirus outbreak at home.

Charyshkina said orders for her company’s flowers dived to 5,000 from 50,000 the day after Putin’s address. Orders had sometimes fallen to as low as 1,000 a day, she said, forcing the company to destroy 200,000 flowers in stock and all new cuttings since self-isolation began.

With Russia’s annual rose production at 300 million blooms, a month without sales could see 10-12% of the crop thrown away, Alexei Sitnikov, head of the Russian Greenhouse Union, said.

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Anti-Monopoly Watchdog to Investigate Info on Rising Food Prices 

Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) will check the information about rising food prices, the watchdog’s press service said, according to TASS.

Earlier, the speaker of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) Vyacheslav Volodin asked Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to take measures to control rising food prices. According to Volodin, lawmakers have been receiving a lot of complaints from citizens about rising prices for food products.

“The service will conduct checks on the information on price hikes submitted by deputies of the State Duma at a meeting with the government on April 9,” the FAS statement said.

The regulator noted that it had switched to daily monitoring of prices in retail chains and online stores following the change of the economic situation. Earlier this week, hundreds of activists of the Kremlin-led All-Russian People’s Front have joined in the monitoring in all regions of Russia.

The FAS also reminded that it established a special “hotline” on food prices. 

Earlier, the watchdog reported that there are no objective reasons for the increase in the cost of sugar and buckwheat in Russia, since the available reserves can cover the demand of consumers.

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Russia Wants to Remain World’s Biggest Grain Wheat Exporter: Minister

Russia plans to retain the position of the biggest global wheat exporter, press service of the Agriculture Ministry said on Friday with reference to minister Dmitry Patrushev, according to TASS.
“Russia will continue boosting food trade both with Saudi Arabia and other priority markets in the future, due to which …

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In semi-arid Africa, farmers are transforming the ‘underground forest’ into life-giving trees

This article was originally published on Ensia.Around the world, nearly 5 billion acres of land — an area larger than Russia — are degraded. Degradation can take many forms: clearing of forests; soil erosion; or the decline of nutrients in the soil, all of which result in less productive land. The loss …

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Ukraine Could Start Importing Russian Onions as Prices Increase

A sharp increase in onion prices in the Ukrainian market have caused a real stir, leading some companies to consider imports from Russia, EastFruit reports.
A week ago, traders from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan began to export onions to Ukraine, and at the end of the previous week, the first offers …

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