Growing up on a family farm in Northern Ireland, start-up entrepreneur John McElhone had an unusual hobby during his teenage years: he spent his free time building websites and apps.
Among his creations was an app that uses satellite images and machine learning to detect disease, destructive weather patterns or irrigation issues in crop fields, which Mr McElone and his school pal Micheal McLaughlin, also a farmer’s son, hoped might be useful for their families.
This month, that same app, CropSafe, secured $3 million in seed funding in the US, where the young founders now live, with plans to see their AI-enabled technology adopted by farmers across the globe, including in the Middle East.
“It started out as a small project and then all of a sudden it started snowballing and here we are now,” said Mr McElhone, 21, who this week will tell delegates attending the virtual summit 'In the Future .... what will we eat?', hosted by the UK Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, how AI can keep crops safe.
“Our technology integrates a few dozen different satellite data and weather sources, such as Nasa and the European Space Agency, with CropSafe acting as a funnel that ingests all of this data. Then we run it through our algorithms, and spit information back out to our customers – it's almost like Siri for your farm.”
With crop contamination and disease costing the global economy about $220 billion every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, it is no wonder what started out as a small project to help their own farms flourish quickly mushroomed as other farmers in their local area asked to use the technology.
“We spent a lot of time working with farmers in Ireland, testing the product and realising they actually wanted to use it,” said Mr McElhone.
“So we started branching out to Europe and the US and now to the Middle East as well.”
Now, the founders, who now live and work in California, have closed their first seed funding round, securing $3m from a pool of investors.
They are adding vital roles to grow their team as they strive to attract more farmers to their subscriber base, which already has clients in the US, UK and Europe, and are even fielding enquiries from some in the Middle East.
“The Middle East wasn't a market we'd looked at until the small landowners started approaching us,” said Mr McElhone.
“We haven't rolled it out yet to the Middle East but that's probably three months down the line. Right now, it's a learning phase of talking to farmers out there and how we can best help them."
The move comes at an exciting time for the start-up, which has an ambitious goal of digitally enabling every single farmer on the planet – “that’s 520 million farms” – as it looks to make farms more efficient through technology, in turn producing a better yield.
Food security is certainly an important issue for the UAE and wider GCC.
The region imports between 80 and 90 per cent of its food requirements, says British think tank Chatham House, with food security among the top priorities for the Emirates, the second-biggest Arab economy, which aims to attain the top ranking in the Global Food Security Index by 2051.
The UAE government is already pursuing a multipronged food security strategy to reduce the country’s reliance on imports, which includes increasing the UAE's self-sufficiency, boosting indigenous food production capabilities and reducing food waste as the country aims to produce 60 per cent more food by 2051 and halve the amount each year by 2030.
Prof Chris Elliott, of Queen's University Belfast and the Institute for Global Food Security, who will also be sharing his expertise at Expo 2020 Dubai this week, said the big challenge for the global food system is to produce more food in the next 50 years than it did in the last 500 as the population rapidly expands.
“That’s a bit of a challenge when you are doing it against the backdrop of climate change and the very polluted planet that we live in, as well as the dark side of the food system and all the people who set out to cheat it through the sale of counterfeit products,” he said.
For the UAE to boost its food production, Prof Elliott said there are massive challenges, partly due to the country’s high temperature, but also vast opportunities “in terms of the implementation of new science and technology”.
Smart agriculture tools, such as vertical farms and aquaponics that tap into the country’s abundance of sunlight, can help, he said.
But for the Emirates to achieve all of its food security ambitions, the key will be to link sustainability with human health, something the whole world must do, he said, with the focus on producing food that is good for humans, rather than relying on "ping food" that is merely microwaved.
Careful consideration must also be given to food waste along every stage of the supply chain – from the farmer knowing the right time to harvest and the correct storage and transportation strategy, to consumers being conscious not to overbuy and using all of the produce they purchase.
“You want a sustainable food system that produces food that is actually good for people and not bad. The whole epidemic around type two diabetes, and a lot of the issues around Alzheimer's are all about diet," Prof Elliott said.
It is the start of the food supply chain on which the founders of CropSafe are focused, and they are hopeful their technology can help UAE farmers to solve the irrigation problems they face.
Like many desert nations, the UAE has limited access to fresh water and only 1 per cent of its land is arable, meaning the country faces significant hurdles in producing food to sustain its rapidly expanding population.
This is why CropSafe plans to pitch irrigation management to farmers in the Emirates and wider region, with the aim to help them "save 20 or 30 per cent" on irrigation costs and in turn produce more food.
“A lot of farmers, no matter where they are in the world and no matter how careful they are with their irrigation, are still wasting an awful lot of water, even if it's computer controlled or programmed," said Mr McElhone.
"With CropSafe we can say, ‘hey, this part of your field is underwater' or 'this part of your field is overwatered', and help farmers make a better map of how they should plan their irrigation."
This was the reason the founders created the business in the first place: "to allow farmers to improve their yields and efficiency through technology".
"That's kind of our end goal," said Mr McElhone. "Unless we help farmers increase their output, then we haven't done our job."
It is quite a statement for a 21 year old to make but growing up on a farm “in the middle of nowhere” that produced grass for livestock, as well as wheat and barley, it is a subject very close to his heart.
When he wasn’t at school or helping out on the farm, the teenager spent his time honing his computer coding skills by watching videos on Google and YouTube.
At school, Mr McLaughlin, a classmate in his English class, had a similar passion for building small websites and apps, with the duo later creating their concept at a coding camp.
Like Mr McElhone, Mr McLaughlin also grew up on a farm, living only 10 minutes away meaning both were acutely aware of how the weather or pests could affect their families' revenue streams.
“We saw a lot of software coming to the market and new technology, like satellite imagery and data and new weather station data," said Mr McElhone.
But while many platforms expect farmers "to become a data scientist" and be able to interpret complex Excel sheets, tables, graphs and maps, CropSafe offered a different solution.
“Farmers should be able to get on their tractor and just do their job and not have this Excel sheet of 20 pages of numbers. We removed the need for farmers to learn to interpret data, and just told them straight up, 'hey, there's a problem in the south corner of your field. Here's exactly what's happening. And here's exactly the next steps you need to do to fix that’."
While their families were the “guinea pigs” for the project, word quickly spread with other Northern Irish farmers asking to use the software to receive alerts for heavy rain or blight – a plant disease that can damage an entire crop – or to raise an irrigation issue.
The pair quickly realised they could take the app the next level, combining their first-hand experience of agriculture and how devastating crop disease can be for a farming family, with a new global approach.
After branching out from Northern Ireland to elsewhere in the UK, the company started attracting customers in the US with Mr McElhone giving up university offers to head to Silicon Valley to pitch to potential investors in 2019 straight after finishing high school.
It was a gamble with the founders using money raised from selling Oreos at school, and income from summer camp teaching stints at Stanford University, to fund their living costs.
The move paid off, with the pair now living in Los Angeles full-time and $3m in funding secured this month.
“I couldn't have imagined this three years ago," said Mr McElhone.
While the app is free to use, it makes its money by taking a small commission from a range of financing or insurance options that farmers might need to fix a problem or boost their productivity.
“We can preapprove that for farmers, so they don't have to go through the process of applying for insurance or financing, a process which usually takes a few weeks,” said Mr McElhone.
Financing can help a farmer pay for the damage wrought by blight, for example, with CropSafe technology mapping out when the disease first affected the crop, what the outlook is and even what fertilisers and sprays can solve the problem.
“We don't like to leave farmers high and dry once we tell them what's wrong, so we prepare the steps of what they can do.”
The app’s alerts and financial options differ depending on where the farm is.
“We have an alert that watches out for wildfires, which none of our customers in Ireland have ever used but our customers in California all have that enabled on their account."
The company is now looking to expand further, with the Middle East one of its first targets.
“We're at a very interesting pivot point, with farmers starting to realise that unless they start to adopt technology on their farm, they're not going to exist next year, because their neighbour is going to be more competitive than them – with better prices or the ability to produce more with less water,” he said.
“One of the big problems with that pivot is the majority of farmers don't understand the existing software and how to use it on their farm. And so we're trying to move as quickly as possible to help farmers make that pivot with everybody else.”