Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. In its fourth year, this online competition awards cash prizes to early-stage startups to develop a solution that drives economic development or solves a social or environmental problem.
We are excited for you to learn more about the 2020 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions. Co-founders of Neurafarm, Febi Agil Ifdillah (CEO) and Lintang Kusuma Pratiwi (Chief of Agriculture), winners of a Third Runner-Up $10,000 USD prize, want to solve one simple problem – feed the world.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Febi: About 40 percent of global crop yields are lost to pests and plant disease every year. It’s a threat to global food security. That’s where we started.
Since my background is in technology, and Lintang’s is in agriculture, we combined our experiences and knowledge to build affordable technology that helps with sustainable farming practices, agricultural education, and strengthening our food resiliency. We created Dr. Tania, an app that currently helps about 5,000 farmers across 257 cities in Indonesia. The app helps them identify and manage crop disease, connects them with agriculture experts, and [helps to make] more productive farmers.
We have millions of farmers in Indonesia. Twenty-eight percent of the populace work in agriculture, yet somehow the sector is a bit left out. You know, our farmers have financial burdens because of crop failure, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, and [lack of] access to resources. We have only about 70,000 agricultural extension agents. An agent runs education programs within communities to help local farmers adapt to climate changes, increase their crop security, and increase their production. But access to those agents is limited. Sometimes farmers need answers to their questions [in regions] where 12 agents serve 30 villages – areas consisting of thousands of farmers. The access isn’t there. Our thinking behind the Dr. Tania app is to compliment the agricultural extension agents’ reach, so that famers can access valuable information when they need it most.
Can you explain how the solution works?
Febi: Agriculture is such a huge industry, so, we built a small, affordable solution for a very specific problem as a first entry point, which is crop disease and pests. That’s our focus. We built an AI-powered crop production and management app called “Dr. Tania.” The Indonesian word “Tani” means farming – so it’s a doctor for farming basically.
So, Dr. Tania is an app powered by farmers coping with crop disease and pests. Farmers take pictures of their unhealthy crops and send them to our server via our app. The app will analyze the pictures and give the farmer specific treatment strategies on what to do, how to treat the unhealthy crop, and proper products that can be used to treat the disease.
Right now, it’s a very simple, basic guide. Under the hood, our AI then classifies the given picture and best practices based on learning it’s already been conducting. Our AI can identify 33 diseases in 14 types of crops. We’ve also built a database of disease management and cultivation. This knowledge base was built from scratch and it supports 700 plant diseases and pests in about 70 types of crops. We gather a lot of data from the pictures because that is how we train our AI, with pictures. We’ve gathered hundreds of thousands of pictures. You know, it’s like teaching a baby. You show it a picture and say, “this is a motorcycle,” “this is a car,” “this is a computer.” And the baby will know. But in our case, it’s an AI learning from visual stimuli.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Febi: This is tricky for me to answer. You expect to have a ‘Eureka!’ moment, right? But it’s not like that at all. If I were to go back to the first time, I think, it’s probably at a hackathon. Back in my college days, I always joined hackathons. My background is in Computer Science and I really like to solve problems by building things – using technology and other stuff to solve problems. But after several hackathons, I got a bit bored. When you solve a problem in a hackathon, it’s something you win for a cash prize. And I think this is where I needed to come up with something that might be good for a lot of people, not just a competition. I wanted something that was big enough and worth it all. That’s how I came across this question: how do you help feed the world? Ever since then, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the problem. Three years later, I’m still working on it.
Lintang: So, I want to add a little background for me. Back in 2017, when Neurafarm was founded, my friend invited me to join because they needed someone with a background in agriculture and biosciences. I was told the company wanted to combine agricultural industries and technology, and I read the proposal. It was really interesting. So, I decided to join because it aligned with my personal goal in life: “benefitting humankind and becoming the generation that Indonesia must be proud of.” I was thinking back then, “What could a 20-year-old girl with an agricultural degree possibly do to impact others?” You know that Indonesia is a huge agricultural country, but look at the productivity rate, farmers’ welfare rates are still relatively low. That is really what I want to pursue. We want to build the solution and combine with the technology to overcome these challenges in Indonesia.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Febi: Our Dr. Tania app has been used by more than 2,500 monthly active users. And through various channels, we receive up to 1,000 questions from farmers every month. We believe that we can do a lot more than this and impact more farmers in a positive way. Winning a prize in Cisco’s GPS will help us to scale our impact and help us to achieve our focuses: impact more farmers, improve the product and services, and scale the operations.
Do you know what you will use the prize money for specifically?
Febi: We’ll open some positions and develop some features that would help farmers to better manage the risk on theirs farms, connect with agronomists, and learn more. Our goal is beyond disease: empowering farmers to grow more, reach more, and distribute better.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Febi: If there’s one thing that we all learned about this situation, it’s about how fragile our lives and our systems are. Coronavirus is exposing the world’s fragile food system. It is profoundly disrupting the global food supply at nearly every level. As a smart farming start-up with a vision to help achieve global food security and build a more resilient and sustainable agriculture through technology, during this pandemic, we have increased our commitment and improved our services for farmers to keep them productive during the crisis, and beyond. We have free online consultations for farmers, access to training and experts, and partnership and digitalization in our focus now. Our user base has been growing fast. It’s doubling because of COVID-19. We went from about 2,500 farmers to almost 5,000 farmers.
Aside from Dr. Tania, Neurafarm created a Facebook Group to stay connected, a group that now has over 5,000 members. We’ve collected produce from local farmers and distributed it to people who are in need during the pandemic.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Febi: That’s an interesting question. It’s been my dream since high school, to start my own business. I was really inspired by Steve Jobs, and Apple, and what they were doing; making beautiful products that improve the way we live, play, and work. I always believed technology could solve the world’s biggest challenges. What I didn’t realize was how intrigued I was about the social side of the business. It’s evolving from for-profit to making a difference. I’m a first-generation college student. I’m the first in my family to attend college. And I want to give back to the community. And I think this could be a way to do that. My family’s really supportive, but I need to communicate everything of course. They have asked me questions like, “Why are you doing this?” “Why not get jobs with high salary at Facebook, or Google, or something like that?” But I think you must communicate with your folks why [this path is] really important for you.
Entrepreneurship is magical, you find something that you really care about from within or from the outside world. Then you work with like-minded people. And from nothing, you build something that matters and impacts a person’s life, or even thousands. And if you’re lucky – billions of people.
Lintang: Becoming an entrepreneur is the one of the best ways to achieve helping others. It takes a lot of patience, grit, perseverance to deliver impact to the people. Also, you have an opportunity to change society with your own hand, those are the things that make me want to pursue my own social enterprise. My family is also very supportive, they want me to pursue what I’m doing, as long as it brings kindness and virtue to others.
What is the best piece of advice you received about starting your social enterprise?
Febi: That’s tough. You know, everybody told me to quit. Even when we were looking for investment from venture capitalists, they said our idea wouldn’t work. So, I don’t really know. I think the best advice is to just start up. If you think something is important enough, you’ve got to do it.
Lintang: It’s a bit religious for me. My family said, “If you help others, God will help you along on the path you walk.” Yep. I really believe that if I do what I do with my fullest heart, and the willingness of spreading happiness, God will always be beside me and He will guide me.
Do you have any advice for next year’s applicants?
Febi: I think if you want to apply, just apply. Because, Cisco, I believe, will help you a lot, in terms of funding and understanding. Applying for this grant was such a beneficial process – it made us rethink our business. You know, breaking everything down into smaller parts. It really helped us think more clearly about what we’re trying to do. It also helped us to connect with others, and that’s really important with a start-up. Just apply.
What job would you be doing if you didn’t do this?
Lintang: Tough question. Maybe I would pursue my Master’s degree in a top agriculture university in the Netherlands. Then after I graduate, I’d start my own agribusiness.
Febi: For me, it’s pretty much the same. I’d continue to pursue a Master’s degree. I’m also really into learning, so maybe pursue a Computer Science degree in the U.S., and [further] applying my knowledge. Maybe join a big company. It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I could make an impact in others’ lives.
What is your favorite book and why?
Febi: The Dip: The Extraordinary Benefits of Knowing When to Quit (And When to Stick), by Seth Godin. It’s a really good book. It made me think about whether I should pursue something.
Lintang: I enjoy self-improvement books. One of the best is Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki. It helped me to learn about people’s mistakes and regrets.
What is your favorite activity when you are not working?
Febi: I like to read. I’m really into astrophysics and computer sciences. I like music too, and browsing on the internet.
Lingtang: Watching movies, like investigations and mysteries. I love the Sherlock Holmes series.
Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2020 winning team!