How this Australia-based company aims to use AI to curb food shortages around the world
By Jonah Waterhouse. 23 August 2022.
In a world wracked with food uncertainty, Australian tech entrepreneur Ros Harvey aims to use AI-driven farming technology to drive a new generation of smart agriculture.
In 2022, it only takes one glance at the news to understand the importance of resourceful farming. Take the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has blocked supply chains and caused worldwide food shortages, or the impacts of climate change, which are changing farmers’ dependence on once-historically dependable seasons.
As Australian entrepreneur and technology executive Ros Harvey puts it, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Glance back at history, and you’ll notice that trying times have informed some of the world’s greatest inventions. In the agricultural realm, Harvey’s AgTech platform The Yield could be considered one of them.
An innovator in their field, The Yield harnesses data from its customers and creates easy-to-use Digital Playbooks for corporate growers, which is based on specific crop growth stages, microclimate data and past harvest data. Using data and analytics, The Yield aims to solve the challenges of uncertainty that accompany farming, and which are being amplified by increasingly unprecedented weather events.
As Harvey told Vogue’s Edwina McCann at Vogue Codes’ breakfast in Adelaide, “Basically what we do with our customers is we create digital playbooks, and these digital playbooks help our customers irrigate, feed, protect, harvest their crops, and it combines their know-how, which is deep, together with our analytics to [create] very simple, easy-to-use recommendations.”
Harvey says the ability to understand crop cycles, and withstand unexpected weather patterns, is “sort of like landing a plane. If you start 18 months out predicting, you’re updating every two weeks into the season as the weather unfolds, and then you can adjust your digital playbook so that you can land the plane on target”.
The weather may be unexpected and the world changing over time, but with companies like The Yield, environmental challenges and food shortages can be confronted head-on through artificial intelligence, creating a better world for all. Below, Vogue speaks to Ros Harvey about The Yield, entrepreneurship, what she hopes for the future, and advice she’d give to women starting out in STEM.
How do you hope The Yield’s technology will become more accessible to farmers around the world?
“We’ve basically created a product that can run anywhere in the world. In many ways, what we’re doing is creating technology that makes it easier for people anywhere in the world, to access digital playbooks about how to grow crops in that particular environment that are set up by experts, with really clever analytics, and turn into really simple, easy-to-use apps. It’s a solution that’s going to bring digital agronomy as a service in a much more scalable and cost-effective way, and that’s super exciting.
“The other really important part of this is, it’s not just expert driven—what we allow in our apps is for people to understand what’s driving these recommendations, so they can interact with and understand them. So it’s not an automated ‘black box’; [instead] it’s saying, “If you’re going to apply this good practice and protocol that’s based on these environmental conditions. What the evapo-transpiration is, which tells you how much water a plant uses. Are we going into a frost period? Is there a heatwave coming?
“All of these things that are driving what it comes down to… what’s the best time to spray, for example? Or a risk—have you got a pest disease risk? Have you got a risk of frost? [Users] can click an ‘I’ and see exactly what's behind that [instruction], so that it’s part of an education process… I think that’s really important. Because you want technology to be empowering, not some expert thing that people don't understand.”
What were some ways Covid pushed The Yield in directions you didn’t expect?
“You know what they say: necessity is the mother of invention. It’s totally true because for example, all of a sudden, we couldn't do installations of microclimate sensing and had to work with partners and do it 100 per cent remotely. It forced us to actually innovate and create really good remote systems to design and install, without us having to send people there because we couldn’t travel.
“It also drove a different approach to the way you sell; traditionally food and agriculture is very relationship-based, and that was always done face-to-face with trade shows, meaning people. All of a sudden, all of our customers were online and couldn’t travel. It increased demand for what we did, because what [customers] really needed to do was to be able to actually operate all these assets remotely—usually our customers in very large multinationals who could have production all over the world, they can’t send an agronomist to go and help because they weren’t allowed to travel. So all of a sudden, they said, ‘how do we put together our know-how with a digital solution to correct these playbooks, so that we can reach people without having to physically send someone there?’ It meant those growers and all those people who’ve had to live and work remotely, suddenly got a lot more used to working with digital solutions.
“In many ways, it really accelerated things. The other thing that’s been happening more recently, with the war in Ukraine and with the supply chain crunches we’ve had in food because of droughts, floods, fires, all of these things, means people realise that supply chains—doing more with less and optimising them, so you know what’s coming in, you can actually get the most value from everything that we produce—we just cannot afford to have waste along our supply chains.
“Technology has become a really important part of responding to all those crises. It’s been good for the yield in that sense, because our technology was more in-demand, and people realise that it was really important that this to become every business is essentially a digital business, including growing.”
What would be your advice to female entrepreneurs in STEM that you wish someone had told you?
“That you have a superpower. I think that women have a superpower - technology is about empathy and understanding how to solve real problems for real people. Whether it’s the way society socialised women… we’ve socialised to be collaborative, to care, to focus on empathy… that gives us a superpower.
“Yes, there’s a lot of barriers for women, so believe in your superpower and back yourself. You’ve also got to be extremely resilient and expect it to be hard, but that’s okay. Every time it’s hard, it’s because you’re learning something. And every time you learn something, as long as you’re open, you're going to innovate and create something new. If it wasn't hard, people would’ve already done it, so if you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ve got to accept it's going to be hard. Back yourself.
“In some ways, there’s a tipping point happening, where I think we’ll see more and more women successfully run and scale businesses like we are seeing more and more women do lots of successful things in society. So I think it’s an exciting time. But just believe in your superpower and understand it will be tough.”
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