In 2017, the UK-based team Climate Edge made it to the TFF Challenge Finals in Amsterdam, where they were awarded a cash prize. Since then, this team – focused on bringing the power of precision agriculture to smallholder farmers – has experienced many successes. In this story, Climate Edge Co-founder James Alden shares what they have been up to over the past couple of years and where their business is headed to in the near future.
Tell us a bit more about Climate Edge – how did you get started with your project and what are you working towards?
Climate Edge actually started as two related MSc projects whilst Co-founders Paul and I (James) were studying Environmental Technology at Imperial College London. The combined aim of our projects was to improve the uptake of climate smart adaptation practices amongst smallholder coffee farmers, to address the increasing impact that climate change is having on farmers in tropical geographies. Specifically, I looked to identify a better method of gathering affordable data from smallholdings, with a focus on climate, and Paul looked at how this data could be fed into a climate smart decision support system to provide farmers with tailored advice, moving away from the traditional blanket ‘Good Agricultural Practice’ approach.
We have moved on slightly from our academic beginnings, and have expanded the scope of our work. At Climate Edge we now define our value as delivering agronomy at scale within the tropical agriculture sector. Using IoT and SaaS we allow agronomists and extension workers in cash crop cooperatives to provide thousands of farmers with expert advice and management recommendations. This advice can have an outstanding impact on these predominantly smallholder farmers, from doubling yields to giving farmers a more informed choice of what training they wish to receive. The impacts of these improvements are felt throughout the supply chain, benefitting the world’s most valuable companies.
The core motivation behind Climate Edge is to create a democratic infrastructure network that allows key data to flow between all levels of the value chain – from multinational supply chain partners, to local producer organisations, and crucially, down to the individual farmer level. Once this infrastructure is in place you can start to have a significant impact on the value chain, providing farmers access to previously unattainable knowledge and information, and providing traders and retailers with insights to reduce risks in their supply chain without it being at the detriment of the farmers at the bottom.
What are some of Climate Edge’s biggest milestones so far?
We have actually achieved our biggest milestone by a country mile this month; we have released the full alpha version of our Farm Tracker platform with the NEXO weather station, and we have just had 6,000 farmers across six cooperatives sign up over the past two weeks. This is what we have been working tirelessly for over the last three years, and now that we have released a product and it has been so widely received, it has given us even more ambition to continue scaling and changing the smallholder sector for the better.
But, we wouldn’t be where we are today without mentioning the significant milestones that helped us get here. Our first big success was securing a pilot project with Fairtrade International and the CLAC when we had just finished our very first MVP (which was incredibly primitive looking back at it now). This was a springboard for people to start taking note of our work and gave us credibility.
We must of course also mention the TFF Challenge Pitch Finals in Amsterdam which introduced us to a much wider world of the agtech sector, and gave us a platform to tell our story.
And finally, we have secured three Innovate UK from the UK government which allow us to test novel concepts (like the one mentioned below) without it damaging our business. These grants allow us to take risks and push boundaries where we would not have been able to before. There are many more examples which, when all put together, mean that a small company like ours have the resources and network needed to actually deliver big things.
What are you currently working on, any exciting projects for the near future?
A really exciting project coming up for us is the development of a downscaled irrigation scheduling service which can be applied affordably and appropriately at a smallholder farmer scale. We are delivering this initially to smallholder banana producers in Colombia, but will look to adapt the method to be used in other crops shortly afterwards. We will be working in partnership with Cranfield University and Environment Systems in the UK, and FUNDEBAN in Colombia.
We are focusing on irrigation scheduling, as irrigation is a substantial capital investment and poorly designed systems or inadequate scheduling protocols can do more harm than good. Over watering can lead to plant damage and excessive water abstraction costs; sub-optimal watering can significantly reduce photosynthetic rates with impacts on crop development and final yield. Exposing the crop to drought stress can also trigger other agronomic problems including increased disease risk.
Bananas should ideally receive 7mm of water per day to meet crop evapotranspiration needs in Colombia. However, water is licensed and allocated to farmers depending on seasonal flows, and during times of low availability, abstraction restrictions through quotas are enforced, during which water may only be available once every three days.
During these periods, calculating irrigation requirements becomes much more complicated, with most farmers tending to over-compensate due to a fear of losing crops to drought. This is counter-productive, as farmers pay more for water, with a large proportion being lost non-beneficially through evaporation, runoff and deep drainage. Managing scarce water allocations through improved irrigation scheduling protocols supported by field agronomy can mitigate these production losses and reduce operating costs.
Technologies like these can have huge impacts on the livelihoods of the farmers we work with, so we are very excited to have the opportunity to start the process and change smallholder farming for the better!
What are some of the shifts you see happening in the food and ag space, as well as challenges and opportunities that go along with it?
I am obviously biased but I believe there will be a significant paradigm shift in technology development away from addressing predominantly developed European and US markets and more towards addressing emerging markets where there is a huge amount of opportunity and potential.
By 2050, the export value of crops coming from African nations will be around $1 trillion per year, whilst the European market will only be worth around $300 billion. There is a great opportunity here to reduce the gap between more and less economically developed nations, and I am sure that agriculture will be at the heart of that movement. But there is also a great commercial opportunity here which people are only just beginning to wake up to. Emerging markets may be more risky, but with higher risk comes higher reward, and in this case there is the potential to have a high social impact as well. In many of the markets we are already working in, simple agronomic solutions can increase yields by 100%, which is absolutely insane. So we see it as a win-win on all fronts.
As for Climate Edge, we hope to be at the heart of that movement, but so also will be our peers who are innovating in this market today, such as our fellow TFF alumni teams Cultivando Futuro and Agrosmart. Our focus will be predominantly on addressing smallholder farmers, as this has been our mission from the start. 80% of the world’s food is produced on smallholdings, so for us to be able to make an impact and to ensure global food security, we see smallholder farming as the best place to start making a difference.
A big barrier to this change is developing infrastructure that allows information and knowledge to travel easily to a vast, remote and disparate market of individual smallholders but we are looking to introduce technology to lower this barrier. With this, we aim to allow other beneficial products such as insurance and finance to enter smallholder agriculture in a meaningful and valuable way, changing the outlook of the market for good.
Do you, like Climate Edge, want to scale your idea into a real business to help solve one of the unprecedented challenges of our time? Join the 2019 TFF Challenge on October 16th, World Food Day!