Last year, Pinduoduo and China Agricultural University co-organized the Smart Agriculture Competition in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Through the competition, 4 technology teams employed data analysis, intelligent sensors, and greenhouse automation to grow strawberries. Their efforts yielded 196% more strawberries than their traditional grower counterparts.
As a part of the event, Pinduoduo also hosted several agriculture technology experts from around the world: Ranveer Chandra, chief scientist of Azure Global at Microsoft; Lesly Goh, former CTO of the World Bank; and Hila Cohen, head of business development at the World Food Program’s Innovation Accelerator. Each of these leaders shared insights on the challenges and opportunities that agriculture development faces.
Ranveer shared more about the cutting-edge work of FarmBeats, a project within Microsoft Research that enables more food to be grown to feed the growing global population without harming the environment. Specifically, FarmBeats increases the feasibility and impact of incorporating data driven practices in agriculture, which ultimately improves yields, reduces costs, and demands less of the environment.
Through data-driven practices, farmers can map their soil moisture, pH, temperature, and nutrient compositions at the very nuanced level. With this information, farmers can apply water and fertilizer only where and when needed to conserve resources. However, data-driven farming is not widely adopted largely because of the cost, so FarmBeats has worked to lower the cost in the following key ways:
Ranveer and the Microsoft team hope that FarmBeats can be a platform for any farmers with a smartphone to gain a deeper real time understanding of their farms and formulate a more targeted and resource efficient strategy to farming. For example, with just a smartphone, farmers no longer need access to expensive sensors to measure soil moisture; instead, the time it takes the phone signal to travel through the soil can indicate the level of moisture (because moisture impacts conductivity).
Through FarmBeats, more machine learning engineers can improve and add algorithms on the platform, and partners can add features to build more solutions for farmers. For broader farm planning, people can even create and customize 3D farm simulations.
In the long term, FarmBeats aims to provide training and education programs to bring AI and data knowledge to farmers everywhere.
Hila shared more about the World Food Program’s Innovation Accelerator which provides hands-on, on-the-ground support in launching and running pilot programs for agriculture technology startups in locations including Tanzania, Jordan, and South Sudan.
She also underscored the program’s interest in frontier innovations leveraging futuristic technologies. She shared several of these:
Lesley underscores several key challenges that the agriculture industry faces, as outlined in her forthcoming Brookings Institute chapter on digital agricultural transformation:
Lesley also outlines several key innovations to raise the productivity of agriculture and lift people out of poverty:
Cheng Biao, the leader of the winning team in Pinduoduo’s Smart Agriculture Competition, notes that in order to create more sustainable agriculture innovations, collaboration from both the farmers and technologists are needed. As Andre Zhu, Pinduoduo Senior Vice President notes, “technology is the force multiplier that helps both the people who grow food and the people who eat it. We want to enable farmers by giving them a tech toolbox that takes the guesswork out of planting.”
The future is indeed bright for agriculture, and Pinduoduo is excited to be a part of supporting the next generation of agriculture innovators.
Jessica Li is on the growth marketing team at ZAGENO, the multi-supplier marketplace for life science products. She was an investor at Soma Capital (investments include Cruise, Rappi, Lambda School, Ironclad, Coda, Astranis) and head of content at Elpha (platform of 26K+ women in tech), Harvard in Tech, the Emerging VC Association, and Techstars Boston. Previously, she worked in VC with General Catalyst, Romulus Capital, Female Founders Fund, and Global Founders Capital; in startups with Morning Brew and Luxe (acquired by Volvo); and in investment banking at Morgan Stanley. She graduated with high honors from Harvard, where she completed her senior thesis with the 2016 Economics Nobel Laureate Oliver Hart.