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Israeli algorithm allows farmers to “talk to their plants”



“What are your plants trying to say?” That’s the question that drives SupPlant, a company rooted in three generations of one Israeli family. Through cutting-edge technology, it helps farmers to work smarter, and it recently raised $10 million (R145.6 million) to widen the reach of its irrigation technology in the South African market.

“For decades, the decision how to irrigate fruit was made based on the farmer’s intuition, experience, and at best on some scattered data. Traditional irrigation approaches limit growers to being reactive not proactive in protecting their crops. Today, technology is taking over this space to help farmers use smarter ways to irrigate and produce more yield,” says Ori Ben Ner, the chief executive of the company.

Although they started SupPlant in 2012, the seed of the company was planted long before. “My grandfather, Avner Ben Ner, was born and raised to be a farmer in a small village in the northern part of Israel. He is still a farmer today at the age of 88. His son and my father, Zohar Ben Ner, studied agricultural engineering and founded SupPlant when he discovered that he could replicate and scale how to sense plants using sensors and cloud computing. I have been working at SupPlant for many years in various roles. Today, I’m chief executive of SupPlant and all the experiments, research, and development is done on my grandfather’s original plot,” says Ben Ner.

“For the first three years, we worked on developing our technology and in 2015, we commercialised it. Sensing plants is an important part of agriculture,” he says. “SupPlant has found a way to scale the sensing: we put sensors on the plants and their surroundings. This radiates to the cloud and translates that data using artificial intelligence and big data. It gives irrigation recommendations and actionable insights.

“We use all the data we have accumulated about 31 crops from 14 countries to create the best knowledge base,” he says. “Some companies monitor only the soil or the weather. SupPlant’s sensors are placed in five locations (deep soil, shallow soil, stem/trunk, leaf, and fruit) and monitor plant and fruit growth patterns, the actual water content in the soil, and plant health. In addition, SupPlant monitors real-time and forecasted climatic data and forecasted plant-growth patterns. All this information is uploaded every 30 minutes to an algorithm in the cloud that provides farmers with precise irrigation recommendations.”

All this allows the company to provide high resolution, real-time, and forecasted insights and irrigation commands. “It allows for accurate irrigation practices, ensuring healthy and robust harvests with optimum water usage that builds resilience through time,” Ben Ner says.

The company grew by a whopping 850% in 2020. “We have achieved remarkable results while helping farmers around the world use less water to grow more fruit,” says Ben Ner. “In Israel, farmers used 20% less water to grow 10% more avocados. Oranges used 37% less water to produce 28% more fruit. In Mexico, 20% more mangos were grown using 15% less water. In Israel, we were able to save 45% water growing dates, achieving better quality. In South Africa, we helped farmers produce 41% more lemons without using more water resources.”

Asked why the company wants to expand its reach in South Africa, and how could it help here, he says, “South Africa has always been known as a country with an advanced agricultural industry and as a top quality grower and exporter of agricultural goods all over the world. At the same time, South African farmers struggle with two major challenges. First, the growing scarcity of water and an urgent need to handle that precious resource better. Second, the changing climate and the need to maintain yield and quality in uncertain conditions. These two factors make the South African market highly suitable for SupPlant’s solution, as our technology excels at managing water correctly and reacting to changing conditions on time.

“South Africa is also a fascinating place to work professionally, with seven different climatic regions, from desert to subtropical regions,” he says. “It provides us with interesting challenges. Our work in apples [reducing water usage by 37%] and lemons was done in the Western Cape, and we are very proud of it. The results with macadamias (a 21% increase in crops) came from the Mpumalanga area, and we are especially proud of this since it was the first time we have implemented our technology on this crop and we had a high yield increase that year. It created a lot of interest in those areas from farmers and others in the area, which created expansion in both areas this season.”

He predicts that water availability for agriculture will undergo significant changes in South Africa in the near future. “Whether it’s from lack of rain and low reservoir levels or the need to relocate water for urbanisation, South African farmers will find themselves in a new situation in which they need to make the best of what they have and cope with limited water quotas,” he says.

“Our technology is perfectly suited to situations in which farmers need to know not only when to irrigate and give more, but also when they can give less and still get enough. This is because we measure the plant’s reaction to everything they do, and the plant can tell us what’s right for it and what’s wrong.”

The system also allows farmers to create quotas for plots and crops and follow it throughout the year, making sure they don’t unknowingly run out of their quota before the year end.

SupPlant is being distributed and serviced in South Africa by a team from AECI Plant Health, “a team of professionals we trained in all aspects of the system – agronomical and technical,” says Ben Ner. “Local agronomists support farmers and help them benefit from our system. This is a two-way street as we also learn from farmers – many of the features we introduce into the system come from our local teams and farmers as they know best what’s needed in the field.

“In addition, we believe in training the farmers we work with in plant sensing so they can make full use of our system and constantly improve,” he says. “That is why all of our data is available for the farmer to download so they can use any tool they wish to learn from and become better at what they do. SupPlant believes that a farmer with more knowledge and tools is a better farmer, which is important to us.”

Finally, he says, “We believe in co-operating with local forces in the market. In this spirit, we are co-operating with Motech South Africa, an irrigation manufacturer we know well from Israel, where our systems are fully compatible with its products, and they are widely used. In addition we are co-operating with DFM Technologies, which produces unique soil sensors. These are also compatible with our system, and can be presented alongside ours. Together, we present a strong presence in the market, ready to answer any needs and challenges farmers may have.”

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1 Comment

  1. yitzchak

    Jul 15, 2021 at 2:41 pm

    ben ner…a light unto the nations

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