F&A Next 2018: All about robotics

Robotics and corporate innovation are the central focus of F&A Next 2018, the event for innovation in the food and agri sector. F&A Next brings together large corporates wanting to innovate and startups that need financing, advice, and clients.

The third F&A Next takes place at Wageningen University on 30 and 31 May. Start-ups, investors, and corporate decision-makers will gather at the event. The program features knowledge exchange, discussions, and showcases by the most innovative start-ups. Jeroen Leffelaar, responsible for F&A innovation at Rabobank, is one of the organizers.

What are the most promising aspects of robotics for F&A?

“Robotics are going to play an important role in the sustainable increase of agricultural production and in waste reduction. Robotic farming is set to take off, with robots now able to operate and measure data at plant level. That means they can replace manual workers during the harvest. In fact, advanced robots can use data to sow seeds, control the spread of weeds, and harvest crops.”

Are robots already being deployed?

“Milking robots are almost commonplace in Western countries, and a range of measuring systems and climate control devices are used in horticulture. Farmers also already deploy robots for weed control and for harvesting fruit. To be used in other countries, these technologies may need to be adjusted to local climate and market conditions. Crop simulation models and improvements in greenhouse climate models are just some of the technologies that could be of use in developing countries. In addition, the knowledge and skills of the local growers need to be developed further.”

Should farmers themselves be innovating then?

“For the best results, farmers should not only acquire new knowledge, but also share knowledge with each other. Suppose one farmer is more productive than the other, then it’s interesting to find out how their approach differs. Data (from satellites, for example) is increasingly available to monitor the growth of crops, the quality of the soil, and the weather. This agricultural data will be used more and more in the coming years, not only in the production process, but also as a basis for financing.

“To improve farmers’ access to this information on a global scale, Rabobank established the globalfarmers.com platform. Farmers have taken a cautious attitude towards the use of data so far, and they may be reluctant to share information. That’s a pity because while they can’t do anything with each other’s land, they can certainly do something with each other’s knowledge.”

What does innovation mean for large corporates?

“Food & Agri corporates must innovate to remain relevant: it’s no longer enough for them to just continue developing existing products. But disruptive innovation hardly ever comes from these corporates. In this respect you can see start-ups and venture capital as a kind of external R&D department for large companies. Corporates are increasingly embracing this model. It can take on various forms: takeover of start-ups, collaboration, or corporate venturing where the company itself takes a minority stake. Rabobank can be the liaison in these scenarios. Just take a look at www.terraaccelerator.com.”

What’s in it for Rabobank?

“We are a financial institution, and we are specialized in food & agri. But there’s more to it than that. As a bank we are eager to contribute to a solution to the world’s food problem: our motto, after all, is growing a better world together. Innovation is crucial, and that’s why we make our knowledge and our network available. Innovation also requires capital, and that’s why we finance the entire value chain: from the small farmer all the way up to Nestlé.”