How technology is changing Ukrainian agriculture for better

While the agricultural sector now accounts for over 30 percent of Ukraine’s exports and 12 percent of its gross domestic product of $100 billion annually, much of Ukraine’s agricultural potential has gone untapped.

One way to change this is agritech — bringing advanced information technology to the field.

Kyiv region fields

A photo of fields taken by a drone in Kyiv Oblast. Ukrainian startup Agrieye uses such drones to amass various data. It creates a precise map, describing the chemical composition of the soil and its vegetation state. Then the company's artificial intelligence analyzes the land and predicts crop yields, giving recommendations on how to irrigate and fertilize.
Photo by Ukrafoto

By Denys Krasnikov, KyivPost

Vast stretches of flat land. Rich, black soil. A temperate climate. Ukraine is a country ideal for agriculture, where many of the world’s staple crops flourish.

But, starved of investment since Soviet times, Ukraine’s farmers still see far lower yields per hectare than their European neighbors.

While the sector now accounts for over 30 percent of Ukraine’s exports and 12 percent of its gross domestic product of $100 billion annually, much of Ukraine’s agricultural potential has gone untapped.

One way to change this is agritech — bringing advanced information technology to the field.

With keen sensors, cheap drones and advances in data management, agritech can vastly increase Ukraine’s potential, say proponents.

A crop of Ukrainian startups is demonstrating how.

Precision farming

Studies by the World Bank show that Ukraine loses about 50,000 hectares of farmland every year from soil erosion and land degradation alone — a loss which costs Ukraine an estimated $10 billion a year.

Techie Andrey Sevryukov claims he could prevent 50 percent of that loss through implementing hi-tech, internet-based land management systems.

He’s set up a company to start doing just that. Agrieye, his company, compiles data using drones, multispectral remote sensing, and vast open data sets from NASA satellites.

With this data, it creates a precise map of a field, describing the chemical composition of the soil — nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium levels — and its vegetation state.

Then, its artificial intelligence analyzes the land and predicts crop yields, giving recommendations on how to irrigate and fertilize crop lands.

Such an approach is called “precision farming.” It helps farmers get the most out of the land available: they can budget for expenses, work their land properly, and, with reliable predictions for crop yields, even sell their harvest several months in advance.

Agrieye now works with small- and midsized farms in Latin America, the United States, Malaysia and Ukraine. Sevryukov says Ukraine has “one of the most developed agritech sectors in the world, on a par with that of Israel.”

According to Sevryukov, U.S. agritech companies focus too much on small-scale solutions, like vertical farms, and gardens in garages, which “won’t feed the humanity in the future.”

Ukrainian and Israeli entrepreneurs, in contrast, try to solve large-scale problems, that will be “groundshaking,” Sevryukov said.

He adds that Ukraine is lucky to have so many agritech startups, even if most of them are looking to earn money abroad, like Agrieye.

The company charges $5 per hectare for its analysis work in foreign countries — but, in Ukraine, offers the service free because “farmers can’t afford it.”

But Sevryukov is sure Ukrainians will be able to pay for his company’s services eventually. “Agritech will help agriculture leapfrog 15 years forward in development, and (Ukraine will) catch up with other countries in this sphere,” he says.

 Linking farms to banks

While, to some, the subject of agritech summons images of robots working the fields and tending plants, Sevryukov has more down-to-earth understanding of what modern technology can bring in the near future.

The next big thing, according to him, is to connect physical things with the online world. There will be technology that will take data from each farm and place it online.

Banks will then be able to use this information to decide more quickly where to issue loans to farmers.

“This will affect the efficiency of business in this sphere. Food production is a business that will never disappear — people will always eat. So it’s important that this sphere is efficient.”

Finding bad soil

Another agritech entrepreneur, Sergii Skok, shares Sevryukov’s focus on the soil, and his international ambitions. His startup Skokagro already has clients in Canada, Australia, and Germany.

In Ukraine, Skok works with big agroholdings like Kernel, Ukrprominvest-Ahro, Cygnet — larger companies than those Agrieye works with.

The technology Skokagro is developing is also different: The company has created a contraption that looks like a box with a long needle coming out of it.

The needle goes into the ground and measures the compression of soil.

The data collected is placed online so that users can see remotely where the soil is too compressed and needs deeper plowing, where it is not practical even to plant at all, and where a farmer can avoid planting and save money on seeds, fertilizer and water.

According to Skok, farmers typically lose 15 percent of their harvest due to soil compression — seeds planted in such soil are unable to develop their root systems, and die.

The result is in multimillion loses for agro-holdings. Along with the soil compression meter, the company makes sensors to measure temperature, humidity and wind, giving farmers a fuller picture of their land’s growing conditions.

Rooting out mismanagement

Startups like Agrieye and Skokagro are rooted in Ukraine’s unfurling IT community, which, once sparse, is becoming better able to nurture innovation.

Yuriy Petruk is an example of this — an entrepreneur and community builder who’s trying to increase raise the level of the industry.

Ten years ago, he founded AgTech Ukraine, an association to promote the role of IT in agriculture. Petruk organizes meetups and hackathons, and matches up tech companies with agriculture producers, trying “form a proper dialog” between agriculture firms and budding agritech startups.

He thinks the adoption of new technologies is the only way the agriculture industry players will manage to survive.

“The others, not using them, will simply die out.” Petruk also highlights the importance of transparency: Some European supermarkets even want to know the type of corn farmers used to feed their chickens.

The use of technology can help farmers keep track of such details down to the last bag of feed.

Meanwhile, the most popular tools in Ukraine are ones for eliminating waste and theft. Companies are developing electronic databases to track what they buy and how much they spend.

Using these, dishonest employees — say one who steals 50 liters of fuel a day — are easy to root out. “You sack several such (employees), and the technology pays for itself,” Petruk said.

Change in mindset

All agritech experts agree that Ukraine could be among the world’s agricultural leaders if it applies IT on a large scale. However, they also say Ukraine still has a long way to go in this regard.

Entrepreneur Skok hopes for a change in mentality in the next generation. According to him, the average age of a farmer is 55, and few are ready to change the way they do business at this age. “A lot of agritech solutions are ready but are still not in use,” Skok said.

“There have to be younger, open-minded farmers, and these may appear in a decade or two.” Petruk from AgTech Ukraine agrees. But he also thinks that agriculture is a conservative field in general. Compared to the fast moving world of tech, results in agriculture come only with the slow changes between the seasons, with the main results being seen only once a year, after the annual harvest. “But there’s a chance of a breakthrough anyway,” he said.

“Ukraine has a lot of programmers and tech experts who are recognized globally. That’s our competitive advantage.”

The Kyiv Post’s technology coverage is sponsored by Ciklum and NIX Solutions. The content is independent of the donors.

Published June 28, 2018. Updated June 28 2018 at 3:02 pm