“Even before I learnt maths, I knew about satellites”. Interview with agtech innovator Navin Twarakavi
Rockets and satellites were a frequent part of Navin’s childhood. Later he not only studied remote sensing satellites and created a startup, but also became a professor and an agtech developer. We talked to Navin Twarakavi about how important it is for technologies to be easy and accessible to users, the problems and the future of precision farming and startups changing the field.
Becoming an innovator
— What brought you to agriculture and why did you decide to stay in this sphere?
— I’ve been working with agtech for the last 15 years. I started as a data scientist in my student days, moved to an assistant professor, then became an entrepreneur (Navin is a co-founder of several companies — OneSoil). I’m in an innovation leadership role at this point.
I was brought up in Sriharikota (a barrier island off the Bay of Bengal coast located in India, − OneSoil). This is a place where rockets are launched, it is a space station of India, and our community has always been filled with scientists.So I spent my childhood in the community where everyone worked for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). This is the company that launched 104 satellites at once. From the top of the roof at my house, I used to see rockets zooming around and I enjoyed it.
Even before I knew mathematics, I knew about satellites. I’ve always been fascinated by them and the things they can do, like sensing water and plants remotely to help understand how crops are doing. But I realized I did not have enough skills to use satellite data, so I slowly started learning.
— As far as I know, you have two Alma Maters: one in India and one in the US, am I right?
— Yes, my Bachelor’s was in Civil and Environmental spheres. Even then I was very fascinated with water, how it could be used for better growth and so on. Then I did my Master’s and Ph.D. focusing on water at Utah State University. We were investigating the ways it interacts with soil and some plants, and how we could manage this interaction sustainably.
— You were a professor at Auburn University and then an associate research professor at the Desert Research Institute. What were your work and research connected with?
— Talking about Auburn, there’s this idea of what we call “a plant-soil-water interaction”. Whether you’re an agricultural or environmental scientist, one of the key subjects is to always try to understand how we can keep this interaction sustainable. My work in Auburn was essentially to understand from a scientist’s point of view how soils interact with plants, how plants interact with the atmosphere. For that, I used machine learning, and what we call “crop models” — basically trying to simulate how crops grow. I also worked on sensors, learning how we can use sensors to identify problems in plants. From there, in the Desert Research Institute, I did some work on irrigation sensors. I also worked on the satellite-based analysis of crop growing, which is what OneSoil does.
Issues of precision farming and probable solutions
— What are your interests in precision agriculture now? Which topics are the most fascinating for you?
— If we look at precision agriculture now, we can probably admit how much it has changed over the last 20 years. Now, it means using tools broadly in “5 spheres” as I call them. The first one is using satellite-based imagery to provide scalable data for farmers, like what OneSoil did with crop identification. The second is the way we make all the knowledge easy to understand and accessible to the user. The third sphere is the crop models: it means you can simulate how crops grow based on the weather, soil condition and other factors. The fourth aspect is the sensor and IoT development. The fifth sphere is understanding the weather because everything in agriculture is dependent on it, right?
My idea is to always understand the farmer’s problem and then identify what technologies can help in solving it. Technology is only a means to accomplish the goal but not the goal itself. It’s like playing with Lego blocks: we might use one tool based on satellite imagery, one on weather forecast, and then make a new product. So, ultimately, we create tools farmers can use.
Technology is only a means to accomplish the goal and not the goal itself.
— I see. What are the biggest issues of precision farming right now?
— First of all we need to think about the customers we are catering to now. There are two groups of people that digital projects cater to: one group is urban and the other rural people from villages. The level of understanding the technologies these two communities have is markedly different. Every city resident does banking and knows how to ride a cab. So a programmer who develops a banking app or an app like Uber can easily create a tool because he knows how, when and where it is used.
However, when it comes to precision farming, a developer can’t easily create tools, because they are often unaware of the rural community. There is a gap in requirements, culture, there is even a gap in understanding what kind of phones farmers have. The first and biggest issue in precision farming is understanding this gap and closing it. Unless we ensure that user empathy is the first foundational element of all, we are not going to be successful.
The second aspect we had a challenge with, is that solutions always address only one problem. A farmer does not like to have many things on his phone, he wants a one-stop solution for at least most of their problems. I guess soon someone will say: “I can’t provide everything at a high level of precision, but at least let me provide it in one place with a small loss of accuracy”.
The third problem is precision farming itself. Currently, the focus is mostly on improving the yield of a crop. That’s good but we have to look at other aspects such as the income the farmer will get from his crop. For example, in India, in one particular area, people were really good at growing potatoes during a particular season. They had amazing yields. The problem was that the prices went down. If the ultimate goal of precision farming is to provide a better profit for a farmer, then a larger scope of factors like market prices, soil health and the sustainability of farmers’ resources should be taken into consideration.
The fourth problem is developers who are too obsessed with their innovations. They can be so fascinated by their product that they keep the user on the side. We need to move from this technology bias to a user-centric mindset.
Unless we ensure that user empathy is the first foundational element of all, we are not going to be successful.
— How do you see the future of agriculture in the next, let’s say, 5 and 20 years?
— For me, the future of agriculture lies firmly in fulfilling Sustainable Development Goals (A call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity — OneSoil) set by the United Nations. I guess in 5 years people will move from getting excited by technology to solving the problem at hand.
In 20 years I imagine farming will be so simplified that you could remotely monitor and automatically manage crops. It will be more like the robotics industry we already have today in the manufacturing sector — no physical work in the field will be required.
Discussing agtech startups
— Which startups do you consider the most important in the AgTech sphere today and why?
— When I think about importance, I look at what these startups do and the liability of their long-term goal, and whether it is sustainable in the market. I like OneSoil, your company has a good mindset. From that point of view, I’d say itk and Taranis, and a startup called Eat Local Grown. It’s a very small organization, but I love the concept behind it — the fact that they are trying to connect the farmer with the customer. And I like GoMicro: they make small hardware you can attach to your phone, so it becomes a microscope. You can then use it to solve various kinds of problems. I think it’s the future of phones as a sensor in agriculture.
— Have you ever thought of creating your startup?
— I had my own startup — we used drones to serve seed companies. We were ahead of the market and the world was not ready for us 5 years ago. As an innovator, I’ve always been motivated and open to cool ideas and startups. The challenge is to understand the market fit. The startup of my dreams would be about combining good science, good user experience and affordability across markets.
— How did you find out about OneSoil? What do you think about the startup and its developments and products?
— The crop maps for Europe and the USA I saw were so exciting (our OneSoil Map — OneSoil) that I started to binge-watch them. OneSoil reminds me of what kind of potential satellite imagery has if a truly passionate team starts working on it. I think that OneSoil is heading in the right direction.
— Is there anything else you would like to say to those who are involved in precision farming?
— As an acting entrepreneur and innovator, I’d like to admit that it’s very important to never compromise on the science or scalability of the solutions and the ways products come across to users. Don’t forget that all farmers want things that are easy to understand and that make sense to them. We have to ensure that whatever we make technologically is robust and conveys the right message at the right time.