Rugged-tech Farming and Ferrying Success

At a time when climate change, growing population and changing consumption patterns have mounted pressures like never before to revolutionize the oldest human industry – agriculture, agri-tech companies are vying to take ‘smart farms’ to the next level. While high-tech unmanned drones, AgBots and the Internet of Things are taking over farms, developing regions still grapple to access basic agricultural amenities. With the intention to plug the wide production and transportation gap for small farmers, five engineering students from Purdue University in the United States came up with a solution. The engineers did not succumb under the weight to come up with the very latest but put social cause at the heart of their innovation – the AgRover

What began as a university research Project, over a period of time progressed to be a real solution for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. “When we started off, we really didn’t have a vision where our student project could go,” says David Wilson, Co-founder of Mobile Agricultural Power Solutions (MAPS) AgRover. “The founding team – Tyler, Jeremy, Jordan, Bunmi and I, were all engineering students from different departments at the Purdue University. All but one of us had been working on a student project, along with other students at the university, as a group designing utility vehicles for agricultural purpose” adds David. However, it was only after their faculty advisor’s site visit to Western Cameroon that they saw a real opportunity to make a difference for farmers.

MAPS technicians demonstrate the ability of the AgRover to pump water.

In collaboration with the African Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology, an NGO in Cameroon, the group was able to redesign and pilot their invention. “Creating a rugged yet simple, powerful platform constructed of common locally available parts has been a big challenge but through years of development we have come up with a design that has proven itself across 3 continents and 7 countries”, says Tyler Anselm, Co-founder MAPS. The AgRover can carry up to 1,000 kg, transport goods on really bad roads, and power a variety of attachments like water pumps, maize grinders, generators, threshers, ploughs, and planters. In many developing countries, where most worrk in rural areas is done manually, AgRover takes mobile services to the farm, bringing in additional revenue and saving time for farmers.

After five years in iterating designs and developing the prototype, the team felt that it was about time to get it out into the hands of farmers. The opportunity came knocking at their door, quite literally, as Sanusi Idowu from Nigeria attended Purdue University under the Young African Leaders Initiative programme. “Sanusi is a very experienced agro-businessman, from Lagos. David and Sanusi met at Purdue in 2016 and Sanusi instantly fell in love with the AgRover design.  His drive to get AgRovers out to farmers across Nigeria led to a strong partnership, development and success of MAPS”, says Tyler. They had already seen the demand and had tested the utility in Cameroon, Kenya, and Uganda – Nigeria provided the platform to really go global. In 2016, they registered the US startup company and started building demonstration units in Nigeria, which coincided with winning empowering people. Award.

Although the team had a quick head start – by winning the award and making the right partnerships, the road ahead was not sans bumps. A major challenge was that each team member was based in different geographical locations, while it is not just Sansui in Nigeria but even the rest of the team is spread across the length and breadth of the US. “Distance presents unique challenges to team functioning but we have been a little more intentional about communication since all team members do not cross each other’s paths like we would have if we were in the same office space. We try to make this work by organizing regular, bi-weekly group calls. Emails and message can be pretty one dimensional as you can’t hear the voice inflections, let alone the facial expressions and gauge how the person is feeling or what the background of the situation is. We have harnessed different communication and project management tools like WhatsApp and Flock. We need to function with a high level of trust, so sometimes it just helps to pick up and call a team member to get a better feel of what the person is saying or feeling”, says David.

The team feels the different epNetwork workshops have also helped to settle these hiccups. “I got opportunities to attend epWorkshops in Berlin and Tyler and I attended the workshop in Amsterdam. We realized that as a team we were on parallel paths, whilst we needed to divide more and conquer by disseminating responsibilities. Sanusi attended two epOnsites in Ghana and South Africa and Tyler attended the Enpact Startup mentoring program, with support from epNetwork. Both Sanusi and Tyler came back with a lot of ideas on the business side of things. Like how to reach out to more people and enhance advertising. Overall, we added more creativity to our approach. The best thing was that we learnt as a team and not just individually”, says David.

Bunmi, David (left), Tyler (right) along with MAPS technicians in front of the workshop in Nigeria.

Sanusi, MAPS techinicians and friends with the AgRover after a day of testing.

 

As an affordable machine with easy local maintenance and repair, the AgRover’s social impact is not only providing a hands-on solution in mobility and agriculture but by also creating jobs for the local community. Some major factors that make the AgRover design unique are, one, that it is specifically designed so manufacturing relies on limited tooling and no complex processes.  Also, all exterior decking for the vehicle is African hardwood, making manufacturing simple and repairs or replacement very quick and easy in remote areas. The company estimates that the factory will employ over 120 workers in engineering, assembly and facility maintenance in 5 years or less. They also have expansion plans in other countries in the sub- Saharan region and beyond.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that there’s an urgent need to boost worldwide food production by 70% over the next several decades in order to feed the anticipated population of 2050. Smart farms alone cannot generate this boom, but definitely more access to simple and viable technologies in the remotest areas can go a long way to ensure food security and bridge the gap between the food production and requirement rates.

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