Last updated April 4th 2018
Common Smut, Tip Blight, Downy Mildew, and Phytophthora root rot. If you were an onion, maize, tomato or bell pepper farmer, you’d be alarmed as these are the names of just some of the more common diseases and deficiencies that can affect these agricultural crops.
The diseases can wreak havoc, take a devastating economic toll on farmers and may even have far-reaching consequences with pathogens remaining viable in the soil for several years.
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Saillog, a Tel Aviv-based agriculture tech startup founded just last year, has come up with an innovative way to help farmers stay ahead and devise a containment and management strategy.
The company launched a free smartphone app, Agrio, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision algorithms to identify plant diseases and deficiencies. Agrio allows users to take images of crops they suspect are affected, upload them to the platform and, within moments, receive a diagnosis and recommendations on how to proceed.
The algorithms have been trained and tested by agronomists across the world, including Israel, India and the US, Saillog founder and CEO Nessi Benishti tells NoCamels. But should a case come up empty, the experts are on hand to assist, which also helps improve the algorithms, he explains.
The startup’s agricultural extension is led by Alon Ovadya, a plant protection expert with a decade of experience in the industry. A small-scale farmer himself in Israel, Ovadya functions as field operations manager and is in charge of communications with other farmers.
Last week, Saillog announced that it was rolling out a new feature, the AgrioShield, a first-of-its-kind alert system that notifies farmers of what notable diseases and pests were detected in the vicinity of their crops and what preventative measures can be taken to minimize damage.
“Sometimes, we see the images [uploaded by farmers] and it’s just too late, and it affects all their fields and it’s just so upsetting. We thought that if there was a way to alert them [of the threats], it would really help them avoid yield losses,” Benishti says.
According to his research, “about 30 percent of the world’s agricultural yield is lost due to improper management of crops, such as incorrect scanning, monitoring, and treating.”
“These losses occur during the crop growth stage, where disease and pest prevention is critical for optimal output,” he wrote last week, further explaining how early detection is key to preventing harvest waste.
Saillog is Benishti’s third venture. With a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Oxford and a Masters in mathematics and physics from Cambridge University, Benishti’s professional background is in medical devices.
He tells NoCamels that he felt there just “wasn’t enough technology in the agricultural field, especially artificial intelligence.”
“Many techniques used in medicine can help in agriculture, and I wanted to apply my experience and knowledge to this field to make an impact,” he adds.
The AI-powered platform took less than a year to set up and by August 2017, the app was available for iPhone and Android users.
According to Saillog, thousands of farmers across the world have already downloaded the Agrio app and are actively using it. Benishti says it’s particularly popular in North America, South America, Vietnam, and India and is among the top 100 apps in the educational category on Google Play in five countries. The app, available in 11 languages including English, French, Arabic, Hindi, Tamil, and Vietnamese, has over 10,000 downloads on Google Play and an almost 5-star rating.
India, which faces unique challenges due to its size and demographics, has been especially appreciative of Saillog’s technology. In January, the company was part of a startup delegation that accompanied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the biggest state visit to the subcontinent in over a decade. Saillog took part in the AgTech category of the India-Israel Global Innovation Challenge and was identified as a winning solution by the Indian government.
Users too appear to find great value in Saillog’s solutions. In an online exchange, a user from South Africa asks if the Agrio app can detect sugarcane infestations as he was not able to identify the potential disease. Benishti responds that while the algorithms don’t support sugarcane disease identification yet, Saillog’s board of experts would love to help once he uploads the images of the affected crops to the platform.
“The artificial intelligence algorithms learn from such correspondences and we will be able to support additional diseases and crops with time,” Benishti writes.
Saillog encourages user feedback and appears very responsive to questions and concerns. It emphasizes that there are constant updates and improvements to the algorithms and the alert system.
Currently, Saillog says the AgrioShield sends alerts for seven known diseases and pest infestations, including aphids (sap-sucking insects), black sigatoka (a leaf disease in banana plants caused by fungi), and late blight (an infestant that causes serious disease in tomatoes and potatoes and was responsible for the infamous Irish potato famine in the 19th century), and plans to add more on a weekly basis.
While the Agrio app is free, the Agrioshield is a premium service and Saillog charges a modest $2 per month for the alert. Benishti says Saillog plans on adjusting the price to a sliding scale to make it affordable for all farmers, in developed countries as well as in the developing world.