Mar
09
2021
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Wefarm adds $11M to expand its network for independent farmers, now at 2.5M users

The vast majority of startups remain focused on consumers, knowledge workers and the opportunities to provide services to those that are already operating completely, or at least partially, in digital environments. But today comes news of funding for a startup building a social network for what is probably one of the least digital business sectors of all: independent, small-hold farmers in the developing world.

Wefarm, a social networking platform aimed at independent farmers to help them meet each other, exchange ideas and get advice, and sell or trade equipment and supplies, has raised $11 million funding to continue expanding its business, which now has 2.5 million users.

To put that number and the growth opportunity into some perspective, Wefarm estimates there are some 400 million small-hold farmers globally, with a large proportion of them in developing markets.

The funding, an extension to the company’s 2019 Series A, is being led by Octopus Ventures. True Ventures (which led the 2019 round), Rabo Frontier Ventures, LocalGlobe, June Fund and AgFunder also participated. Wefarm has raised $32 million since being founded in 2015.

To date, London-based Wefarm has primarily found traction in countries in East Africa. Its service is available via a website, but most of its users are accessing without any internet use at all, via the company’s SMS interface. The SMS format has now hosted more than 37 million conversations from farmers engaging in around 400 different types of farming (from livestock or dairy to grains and fruits and vegetables) and $29 million in marketplace sales, the company said.

But rolling out SMS services can be slow, in part because it requires Wefarm to strike local deals with carriers over data usage. (That has also meant that the company has tightly controlled growth: if you go to the main site, you’ll see that you can either join a waitlist or join by way of an invitation from an existing member.)

Kenny Ewan, Wefarm’s founder and CEO, said this latest tranche of funding in part will be used to roll out an app (currently in beta) that will help it launch in more countries and pick up more farmers.

“The big step we’re taking is going from SMS to a digital, app-based service, which will remove the digital barrier,” he said in an interview. “We compare it to the shift from sending DVDs in the mail to streaming video online. We feel like the time is right and believe it could take us to the 100 million mark of users.”

From pandemics to locust plagues

Wefarm’s role in helping link up independent farmers — traditionally and by its nature one of the most analog of industries — has taken on an interesting profile particularly in the last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a stark light on a number of digital divides in the world, and one of the most distinctive has been in the wider world of business. Entrepreneurs, companies and organizations that had digital strategies in place could hit the ground running to adapt to a “new normal,” with less physical interaction. Those that did not had to scramble to get there to avoid a nosedive in activity.

Wefarm was around for years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some regards it has always been championing and giving a digital voice to the underdogs.

The wider agricultural industry — globally a multi-trillion-dollar enterprise, accounting for up to 25% of GDP in some markets — has undergone some significant digital transformation, but that has been focused on tools and other technology for the agribusiness sector, which includes the giant conglomerates and multinationals like Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer (Monsanto’s parent), John Deere and others.

Wefarm’s importance (and often singular presence) as a tool for independent farmers to communicate, trade and generally network with others like them was already playing out before COVID-19. When we covered the company’s previous raise in 2019 (the first part of its Series A, a $13 million round) it had already grown to 1.9 million members. And, as it happens, for many of its users, COVID-19 was in some regards the least of their concerns:

“In reality a lot of people in rural Africa were concerned about the weather, or the effect of a locust plague,” Ewan said. “What we saw was traffic around not COVID, but these topics. They had different preoccupations.”

But the pandemic has had an impact, nevertheless. On the platform itself, as we saw in other e-commerce scenarios, Wefarm emerged as an essential service for trading at a time when in-person meetings were halted. As for Wefarm as a business, Ewan said that it essentially meant that the company’s country expansion plans had completely halted mainly because business development teams could no longer travel as they had before: another reason why launching an app could be a useful growth tool.

(That lack of travel was also potentially helpful to Wefarm: despite that the company still managed to grow by 600,000 more users, Ewan pointed out, underscoring a clear demand for the service among its target audience.)

Going forward, there are other ways in which Wefarm aims to leverage its user base, its network and the data that it potentially can amass from them.

“We see the possibility of providing more analytics and data. Our users want that very much,” Ewan said. “We now know more about small-scale farmers than anyone else, because they talk to us.” Areas that Wefarm is considering to develop over the next two years are whether it can help provide more insight into more workable business models, pricing models and more data on particular aspects like ripening periods.

“By building a highly engaged community of millions of small-holder farmers, Wefarm has created a powerful platform providing greater access to vital knowledge and information, which allows farmers to unlock greater economic potential from their land,” said Kamran Adle, early-stage investor at Octopus Ventures. “In practice that might mean understanding which fertilisers work best, what the market price is for certain goods, or new farming techniques that result in better yields, all of which can make a significant difference to livelihoods. It’s also an enormous market with more than 400 million small-holder farmers globally who collectively spend around $400 billion on farming inputs. There is a huge opportunity for Kenny and the team at Wefarm to achieve incredible scale and we’re excited for the launch of its digital platform which will further accelerate growth.”

Jan
21
2021
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South African startup Aerobotics raises $17M to scale its AI-for-agriculture platform

As the global agricultural industry stretches to meet expected population growth and food demand, and food security becomes more of a pressing issue with global warming, a startup out of South Africa is using artificial intelligence to help farmers manage their farms, trees, and fruits.

Aerobotics is a South African startup that provides intelligent tools to the world’s agriculture industry. It raised $17 million in an oversubscribed Series B round.

South African consumer internet giant Naspers led the round through its investment arm, Naspers Foundry, investing $5.6 million, according to Aerobotics. Cathay AfricInvest Innovation, FMO: Entrepreneurial Development Bank, and Platform Investment Partners, also participated.

Founded in 2014 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics is currently focused on building tools for fruit and tree farmers. Using artificial intelligence, drones and other robotics, its technology helps track and assess the health of these crops, including identifying when trees are sick, tracking pests and diseases, and analytics for better yield management. 

The company has progressed its technology and provides independent and reliable yield estimations and harvest schedules to farmers by collecting and processing both tree and fruit imagery from citrus growers early in the season. In turn, farmers can prepare their stock, predict demand, and ensure their customers have the best quality of produce.

Aerobotics has experienced record growth in the last few years. For one, it claims to have the largest proprietary data set of trees and citrus fruit in the world having processed 81 million trees and more than a million citrus fruit.

The seven-year-old startup is based in Cape Town, South Africa. At a time when many of the startups out of the African continent have focused their attention primarily on identifying and fixing challenges at home, Aerobotics has found a lot of traction for its services abroad, too. It has offices in the U.S., Australia, and Portugal — like Africa, home to other major, global agricultural economies — and operates in 18 countries across Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. 

Image Credits: Aerobotics

Within that, the U.S. is the company’s primary market, and Aerobotics says it has two provisional patents pending in the country, one for systems and methods for estimating tree age and another for systems and methods for predicting yield.  

The company said it plans to use this Series B investment to continue developing more technology and product delivery, both for the U.S. and other markets. 

“We’re committed to providing intelligent tools to optimize automation, minimize inputs and maximize production. We look forward to further co-developing our products with the agricultural industry leaders,” said Paterson, the CEO in a statement.

Once heralded as a frontier for technology centuries ago, the agriculture industry has stalled in that aspect for a long while. However, agritech companies like Aerobotics that support climate-smart agriculture and help farmers have sprung forth trying to take the industry back to its past glory. Investors have taken notice and over the past five years, investments have flowed with breathtaking pace. 

For Aerobotics, it raised $600,000 from 4Di Capital and Savannah Fund as part of its seed round in September 2017. The company then raised a further $4 million in Series A funding in February 2019, led by Nedbank Capital and Paper Plane Ventures.

Naspers Foundry, the lead investor in this Series B round, was launched by Naspers in 2019 as a 1.4 billion rand (~$100 million) fund for tech startups in South Africa. 

Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, CEO of Naspers South Africa said of the investment, “Food security is of paramount importance in South Africa and the Aerobotics platform provides a positive contribution towards helping to sustain it. This type of tech innovation addresses societal challenges and is exactly the type of early-stage company that Naspers Foundry looks to back.”

Asides Aerobotics, Naspers Foundry has invested in online cleaning service, SweepSouth, and food service platform, Food Supply Network.

Jul
30
2020
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Buildots raises $16M to bring computer vision to construction management

Buildots, a Tel Aviv and London-based startup that is using computer vision to modernize the construction management industry, today announced that it has raised $16 million in total funding. This includes a $3 million seed round that was previously unreported and a $13 million Series A round, both led by TLV Partners. Other investors include Innogy Ventures, Tidhar Construction Group, Ziv Aviram (co-founder of Mobileye & OrCam), Magma Ventures head Zvika Limon, serial entrepreneurs Benny Schnaider and  Avigdor Willenz, as well as Tidhar chairman Gil Geva.

The idea behind Buildots is pretty straightforward. The team is using hardhat-mounted 360-degree cameras to allow project managers at construction sites to get an overview of the state of a project and whether it remains on schedule. The company’s software creates a digital twin of the construction site, using the architectural plans and schedule as its basis, and then uses computer vision to compare what the plans say to the reality that its tools are seeing. With this, Buildots can immediately detect when there’s a power outlet missing in a room or whether there’s a sink that still needs to be installed in a kitchen, for example.

“Buildots have been able to solve a challenge that for many seemed unconquerable, delivering huge potential for changing the way we complete our projects,” said Tidhar’s Geva in a statement. “The combination of an ambitious vision, great team and strong execution abilities quickly led us from being a customer to joining as an investor to take part in their journey.”

The company was co-founded in 2018 by Roy Danon, Aviv Leibovici and Yakir Sundry. Like so many Israeli startups, the founders met during their time in the Israeli Defense Forces, where they graduated from the Talpiot unit.

“At some point, like many of our friends, we had the urge to do something together — to build a company, to start something from scratch,” said Danon, the company’s CEO. “For us, we like getting our hands dirty. We saw most of our friends going into the most standard industries like cloud and cyber and storage and things that obviously people like us feel more comfortable in, but for some reason we had like a bug that said, ‘we want to do something that is a bit harder, that has a bigger impact on the world.’ ”

So the team started looking into how it could bring technology to traditional industries like agriculture, finance and medicine, but then settled upon construction thanks to a chance meeting with a construction company. For the first six months, the team mostly did research in both Israel and London to understand where it could provide value.

Danon argues that the construction industry is essentially a manufacturing industry, but with very outdated control and process management systems that still often relies on Excel to track progress.

Image Credits: Buildots

Construction sites obviously pose their own problems. There’s often no Wi-Fi, for example, so contractors generally still have to upload their videos manually to Buildots’ servers. They are also three dimensional, so the team had to develop systems to understand on what floor a video was taken, for example, and for large indoor spaces, GPS won’t work either.

The teams tells me that before the COVID-19 lockdowns, it was mostly focused on Israel and the U.K., but the pandemic actually accelerated its push into other geographies. It just started work on a large project in Poland and is scheduled to work on another one in Japan next month.

Because the construction industry is very project-driven, sales often start with getting one project manager on board. That project manager also usually owns the budget for the project, so they can often also sign the check, Danon noted. And once that works out, then the general contractor often wants to talk to the company about a larger enterprise deal.

As for the funding, the company’s Series A round came together just before the lockdowns started. The company managed to bring together an interesting mix of investors from both the construction and technology industries.

Now, the plan is to scale the company, which currently has 35 employees, and figure out even more ways to use the data the service collects and make it useful for its users. “We have a long journey to turn all the data we have into supporting all the workflows on a construction site,” said Danon. “There are so many more things to do and so many more roles to support.”

Image Credits: Buildots

Mar
07
2017
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Farmers Business Network cultivates $40 million to help farmers buy seeds at favorable prices

 GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) and DBL Partners co-led a $40 million investment in Farmers Business Network Inc., the company announced on Tuesday. FBN started out as something of a professional network for farmers and other agronomists. It allowed people working in agriculture to anonymously share information about what they were paying for seeds, fertilizers, and other… Read More

Jul
26
2016
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Prospera raises $7 million to put computer vision and AI to work on the farm

Prospera monitors tomatoes growing in a greenhouse. A Tel Aviv-based startup called Propsera has raised $7 million in new venture funding to build out systems that will monitor and help farmers improve the health of their crops, and optimize their operations. Bessemer Venture Partners led the Series A round. Prospera CEO and co-founder Daniel Koppel said agriculture professionals have plenty of tech at their disposal today from soil and… Read More

Jul
18
2016
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Arable’s crop and weather sensor, Pulsepod, aims to make farming predictable

The Arable Pulsepod is installed on a farm to gather data about crops from the ground. A Princeton, New Jersey startup called Arable Labs Inc. recently unveiled a professional-grade crop and weather sensor that’s solar powered, rugged and was designed by Fred Bould, the creative talent behind the Nest thermostat, smoke and carbon monoxide detector, as well as Fitbit, GoPro and Roku products. The Pulsepod, which looks something like the head of a small drum or a… Read More

Feb
18
2016
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Indigo Is Mapping Plant Microbiomes To Produce Next Generation Crops

Indigo2 David Perry thinks the secret to agricultural challenges like drought resistance might lie in the bacteria that live in a bunch of grass on the beach. That’s just one example that Indigo, a company that analyzes the microbiomes of plants to produce seed coatings that impart various attributes, is looking into as a way to combat difficult conditions for various crops. Indigo is… Read More

Jun
15
2015
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PowWow, A Startup That Tracks Water Pump Health, Raises $3M

powwow irrigation advisor PowWow, a startup that specializes in technology like a tool that detect leaks and help farmers keep track of their water usage, has raised $3 million. PowWow uses a combination of data from aerial imagery, water energy records and other kinds of data, and then sends farmers text messages with updates if there is a problem. Those problems can be something along the lines of finding a leak.… Read More

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