Integration of geospatial technology with other solutions can push precision agriculture and empower smallholder farmers, says Jason Brantley, Director, Sales & Marketing- Asia and Africa, John Deere.
How would you introduce John Deere?
John Deere has been around since 1837 — we are about 182 years old. John Deere was a blacksmith who invented a self-scouring steel plough that practically opened up the mid west of the United States of America for agriculture growth. We have continued to grow and expand globally since that time. We actually sold our first product in Africa in 1878. So, we have been here for quite a while, and sitting here today in Africa, we have a footprint of over 130 dealer locations across 22 countries. We simultaneously focus on the themes of sustainable agriculture, food security and productivity. That’s what our business is all about.
What kind of potential do you see in Africa market?
Agriculture is an important industry in Africa and we are a significant player here. We have been here for over 140 years. In this time, we have been fortunate to develop a strong brand and many good relationships. Africa for us is a growing market. Africa only achieves about 1/7th of the global yield average in some key commodities such as maize. There is a lot of arable land that small farmers have, but they are not able to farm effectively because they don’t have the required resources. We think mechanization can play a key role in such a scenario. We routinely see a two to four times improvement in yield through certain measures. So you can improve kilograms of food per hectare. We have been working with the University of Hohenheim in Germany and one of their studies in Africa suggests that when farmers have access to mechanization services, there is a significant increase in their income due to high yield. According to the study, incomes went up by as much as 40% for some farmers. In terms of impact, one contractor was able to support about 65 farm families and those families, in a course of two years, were pulled out of the web of poverty. We also found that the number of girls staying in schools for longer periods went up as they were not pulled out of school to work in the farms.
Other than Africa, which are the potential areas in terms of geography for John Deere?
You will have to look at geographies a little differently. When you look at the established markets in Europe or North America, there are still tremendous opportunities there. They tend to focus on different types of technology and different scales of machine architecture. When you look at places in Asia and Africa, which is primarily where I do business, there is still a lot of basic mechanization. In established markets where you had a period of mechanization over many decades, people are now moving into geospatial and telematics-enabled technology solutions that are changing farming for the better by reducing the amount of inputs that are used, reducing the impact on the environment, increasing the output per liter of water and ultimately helping farmers create a more sustainable, higher productive system. All of this is well documented. However, what doesn’t get talked about enough, one of the reasons why I’m excited to be at this ICT4D conference, is the role technology is playing in emerging farming markets. For instance, in India, you have a lot of entrepreneurs and manufacturers such as John Deere who are beginning to introduce technology-based solutions that are priced much lower than what we have been able to previously provide by leveraging Cloud, mobile technology and connected Internet. These solutions can help small farmers use technology to solve some of the persistent problems they face in their occupation. I would say the opportunities are everywhere. They are just different at different places.
What are the challenges that you face when you are working in developing countries like India, where land holdings are really small?
People do talk about land holdings being a challenge. I am not going to tell you that it’s not, but I would also tell you it’s a reality. There are very good reasons for why people farm in the land holding size that they do. I’m not going to predict whether land holdings will consolidate, or whether they will continue to move in the other direction. I think, as an industry, what we have to do is to be ready with scalable and appropriate solutions regardless of what the underlying farm size is. Usually people talk about scaling up, but I am talking here about scaling down technologies so as to be able to bring value to small holding farmers. There are some great research and startup companies that are doing things like low cost sensing or using drones for low cost visual imagery to give insights into plants’ health and productivity. There are many exciting things going out there that may be based on technology that has been developed and commercialized. We are going to deliver customized technology solutions in really small sizes that fit the needs of small farmers. I think that’s really important, as it was not possible five or ten years ago. The GPS that had the accuracy you needed to do some of these things was four to six thousand dollars. Today, you can get pretty close with a smartphone, which is a couple of hundred bucks. And it’s only going to get better from here.
Is John Deere scaling down its technology offerings for farmers in developing countries?
Absolutely. We are looking in two ways, one of which is around scaling down. For instance, we introduced John Deere TeleLink in India last year. It is an on-board integrated telematics solution for a John Deere tractor. It comes at a much lower cost and has really opened up an opportunity for a small farmer contractor in India to be able to have connectivity with his tractor through his phone for fleet management, maintenance, understanding the use of the tractor and having a more effective operation. That’s just one example. We partnered with Hello Tractor and they have a telematics solution and a really innovative app that helps match up farmers who have needs with contractors that have tractors and capacity. We have other R&D projects and things that we are bringing forward. What’s important is that we are under no illusion that we can do all this on our own. And in order to have the right solution, at the right price and the right time, you have to be able to partner and collaborate. We are trying to connect with the innovators and entrepreneurs who can really do something important for agriculture. We want to know about these new innovations and want to be considered as a potential partner. We want people to know that John Deere does a lot more than just tractors. Because of our footprint, and because of hundreds of thousands of tractors in thousands of locations that we have across Africa and Asia, we are able to get really close to customers. To sum up: when people have an innovative solution, we can partner with them.
In your previous role, you have managed John Deere’s Accelerated Innovation Process portfolio and the overall innovation strategy as part of the global technology and innovation network. Can you share some details about the program?
Many leading global companies do this. John Deere has a multifaceted R&D approach. We have our current products and solutions for our customers and we want to continue to make these better every year as part of a commitment with our customers. People always expect John Deere to get better. We focus and invest a lot in that. Then we have the next generation of products and solutions that are typically iterative. And every few years we can get a lot better, which is what we call Accelerated Innovation. The other one is the Breakthrough Innovations that provide totally new solutions. We are always focusing on things that make sense to our customers. Because you can do the most interesting thing in the world, but it might not solve a real problem that a customer has, and that will not attract his attention. We keep trying new things, experiments to make our products/solutions better. So, in that role, I was responsible for the overall innovation portfolio, and that was a space we lived in everyday. It was quite exciting. I think what’s really exciting now is seeing the things that we worked on and invested in 5-7 years ago being introduced in the market.
Can you tell how geospatial data and technology is being used for precision agriculture, or what returns/ benefits have your clients received with the integration of geospatial in your products?
I will speak about large-scale commercial agriculture. The types of solutions that you would see for large commercial customers in Africa are very similar to what you see in North America or Australia. But that is a small percentage of the total number of farmers in Africa. I think a great example would be the types of things we have introduced or are in the process of introducing that allow a farmer to know what he has planted where, how it’s been treated and what the yield is. We are heading towards farming by the plant. So if there are 40,000 corn plants in an acre, we will have 40,000 separate data points where we are tracking each individual plant. One of the companies that John Deere has acquired over the last few years is called Blue River technologies. They are a leader in Artificial Intelligence in agriculture. It is amazing to see the kinds of things that they are envisioning. So we are looking at making every seed count, every drop of water and chemical count, and saving every single minute. That’s the role this technology plays, and it’s all pretty much geospatial in nature. Because you have got to reference to a particular plant, and the plant is at a point on Earth. What we are learning with this technology can be applied at different scales using mobile. The current technology is currently giving good returns to customers and this will continue to improve.
Are you also looking at using a different platform for serving the market?
We are already doing that. The John Deere TeleLink used in India is fundamentally different from the telematics platform that we use in other markets. We have already seen the need to have that kind of divergence.
What future innovation can we expect from John Deere, especially in AI & ML usage?
I mentioned earlier that everything that we do has to be focused on a customer and that runs very deep in our DNA. We started with customers in John Deere‘s part of the world complaining that they couldn’t farm efficiently, and he invented a solution to fix that. We can speculate on a whole lot of things. At the end of the day, the customer is going to be the one to determine what we are going to introduce into the market and when. It’s going to have to be a real need. But I can talk about some trends. One of them is managing by the plant. Second one is around increasing automation. I think you are going to see an increasing role for automated machinery in delivering prescriptions and managing the farm.
Can you tell us about the My Analyser and My Operations tools?
Readers can go to johndeere.com and take a look at the John Deere Operations Center. Essentially, the John Deere Operations Center is an area in the Cloud that is secure and where our customers can store their operational and agronomic data. And as it is customers’ data, we don’t have open access to it. It’s simply a repository for customers where they can give permission to their partners and third parties they choose to perform services for them. And they can also analyze their own data and have the portability that they need to be able to move that around and analyze it. So the two apps that you mentioned are among a number of different applications that the growers can use in the Cloud for managing their data.
Who are the key technology partners for John Deere?
It’s a long list. We have over 100 official partners that we work with in the John Deere Operations Center and data analytics environment and that our customers have access to. We establish relationship with a third party, make sure that they understand and have the capability to maintain the data privacy and integrity for our customers, and make sure they can deliver a level of quality for our customers. But then we allow them to work within our space and with our APIs so that they are able to deliver the services that the customers need, and continue to innovate and evolve and look for ways to offer more value. At the end of the day, that’s how you improve the sustainability and the productivity.
Who are your key geospatial industry partners?
The biggest one is one whom we are actually vertically integrated with. We have NavCom, a John Deere company. NavCom is a leader in satellite receivers and geospatial technology. So we are able to really tightly integrate that into the architecture of our machines and solutions across the board. We also own a differential correction signal satellite network, so we provide our own signal for equipment so that we can be confident that we are accurate. If you think about this, you have to be a centimeter or two accurate, year to year, every time – because the customer is driving machines that weigh tens of thousands of pounds at five or six miles an hour and they may have buried irrigation that they don’t want to hit. Or they may be trying to shift four centimeters to the left because some residual nutrients are left in the ground from the last crop that they want to be able to use in this crop. So in order to be able to guarantee that level of accuracy to our customers, we are actually pretty vertically integrated with them.
As you continue to look at scaling up and scaling down technology, what would you expect out of the geospatial industry?
I think what we would like to see is the same thing that everyone likes to see. The accuracy has to go up and the price has to come down till a point where a handheld phone can have the ability to have two-centimeter accuracy year to year. That opens up a lot of opportunities for small farmers to be able to do things differently. There is a lot of work being done on this front. People and companies are investing in this. I think that people tend to think of agriculture being a lower technology space when actually, over the last 100 years, agriculture has been at the leading edge of most new technologies. So we bring some visibility to that because we also want to attract people, attract their interests to the problems that the industry is trying to solve. We certainly have a list that we prioritize. And it’s not just one company that will solve the entire problem. So you want to help people in the geospatial industry to understand the tremendous opportunities for agriculture and sustainable food production that exists for small farmers, not just large farmers.