“Prevention is better than cure,” is a saying most people have heard more than once. Not only does this quote apply to health, but it also applies to situations in which preparation to avoid a problem is much better than having to solve it.
A group of young entrepreneurs took this saying to heart and conceptualized it into agriculture. Anihan Technologies Inc. is a company built by young agripreneurs with the goal to provide a solution to a critical problem in agriculture: food loss.
According to Anihan Technologies Inc., or AniTech for short, 10-40 percent of crops in the Philippines are lost every year. Considering that the world is currently facing the crisis of food insecurity, it’s dismaying to learn how much food is not able to reach consumers.
They’ve identified several factors which may cause this, such as logistical mismanagement, prolonged storage, and poor management of temperature and humidity.
AniTech’s solution: a sensor that can track the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen, temperature, humidity, and light in a greenhouse or a warehouse. The sensor is able to send over the data to a web-based platform which is accessible through a mobile phone or a computer.
AniTech believes that it is much cheaper to reduce food loss rather than increase production to make up for it. So, the goal of this sensor and platform is to give farmers and distributors information to help maintain optimal growing and storage conditions, as well as to become an indicator if one particular level is too high or too low which may affect the food stored inside.
Through this sensor, AniTech embodies the concept of preventing a problem rather than being forced to solve it.
AniTech is made up of four young adults who couldn’t say no to a challenge.
Three of them are co-founders of the project, namely Gillian Santos, 26, her 24-year-old brother Anthony Santos, and Danielle Torres, also 26. The fourth and most recent addition is 26-year-old Angelo Santillan who serves as their operations coordinator.
Although AniTech is an agricultural venture, the co-founders are actually all physics graduates from De La Salle University. However, the difference of fields didn’t mean that they were completely uninterested in agriculture.
Gillian Santos, the CEO of AniTech was inspired to address the problem of food loss after spending five years in the National Food Authority as a researcher and market validation officer. “I was roped into a contract as part of the consulting team of the National Food Authority,” Santos said. “This was during the time of RA 11203, or the Rice Tariffication Law was passed. During that contract I saw all the systemic challenges that the rice industry was facing and it really kept me up at night.”
Santos couldn’t keep herself from thinking about ways to help the sector, and so she spoke to her brother, Anthony, and her friend, Danielle, to work on how to bring a solution to reality.
In 2021, the three formed a team and conceptualized a sensor that could track and record the levels of different environmental factors and a digital platform that could receive the data. They applied to a startup competition, and won. They moved on to the next stage of the competition which included competitors from different Asian countries, and fortunately won a corporate award.
“We kept on winning startup competitions, and we used that funding to develop our first prototype,” Santos said. “And eventually, we found ourselves piloting with test users last year (2022) and this year (2023).”
How it works
As a startup company, AniTech’s consecutive wins are a testament that their device shows promise, but how exactly does it work?
“This sensor system can monitor and track key environmental conditions. We’re talking carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, light, oxygen,” Santos said. “Basically, these environmental factors that affect crop growth and spoilage.”
The sensor is a compact four-inch rectangular box that can sense up to 100 square meters of an area. As of now, it needs a continuous power source which is why it requires to be close to a power outlet, however, AniTech is working on developing the sensor to be powered by solar energy or by a battery.
The sensor sends the data it collects to a web-based platform that farmers can access through any smart device, such as a phone, a tablet, or a computer.
The platform then displays the data into different visualizations. “We’re talking line charts that visualizes long-term trends of, let’s say, carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity, and light,” Santos said. “Bar charts to compare the data. What you can also see are the real time values [of these factors].” Whether the farmer is close to the sensor or not, he or she will be able to see the environmental levels of his or her greenhouse anytime.
The platform doesn’t just visualize the data, but it also has an early warning system that can contact the farmer if his or her greenhouse is experiencing abnormal environmental levels, such as high temperatures that may lead to the crops experiencing heat stress. The farmer doesn’t need to be online to be alerted because the system can send an SMS as soon as this happens.
AniTech’s web platform can also give automated reports via email in case the farmer is unable to be online as often as he or she would like. Aside from reports, the email can also recommend action steps for the farmer to take in order to optimize the environment of the crops.
The most recent feature of the platform is a section where farmers are able to log the activity they did for the day. This feature was created after AniTech received feedback from their pilots, as they learned that having such a section helps keep information organized in one place.
So far, AniTech has conducted pilots on several greenhouses and warehouses from 2022 until now. In 2022, their sensor had been used by various companies, such as MKP Inc., and FarmJuan, over a three month period in order to gather data and feedback for their device. Now, AniTech is partnered with an agricultural supply company, where they are able to put their sensors to use at the company’s research and development greenhouses for at least six months.
While the sensors are in use, not only does it benefit the greenhouse and warehouse owners, but AniTech is also able to collect data that can be used to expand their database on crops and the optimal conditions for each specific one. As their database grows, they will be able to provide targeted recommendations for a particular crop, thus making their device more effective and reliable.
An endeavor with a promising future
AniTech has been running for over two years, but it wasn’t easy getting to where they are now.
“The first [challenge] is starting all of this during the pandemic and the country was on lockdown, so there was no way for us to visit farms or warehouses face-to-face and talk to them personally,” said Santos.
She followed by saying that funding and resources were hard to secure compared with startups that mainly developed an application or platform, AniTech had hardware which made it difficult for them to secure the funding to create it.
“Third would be the fact that we had no name or reputation in the agriculture sector,” she continued. “We may be of technical backgrounds, but we’ve never really worked in the agricultural sector so we built [our] reputation from scratch by joining anything and everything to do with agri.”
Perseverance truly pays off because the wins of AniTech in startup competitions had helped fuel their goal of creating their device. Now, they are happily seeing their sensor in use and continuously collecting data that can improve it.
Additionally, AaniTech isn’t just stopping at improving their environmental sensors, but are also looking to develop a soil sensor that would work the same way.
AniTech is still a young company with a long way to go. Their goal of helping reduce food loss through providing a device to optimize crop production and storage is yet to be realized.
Since their pilots have mostly been on a three-month period, they learned that the time was too short to gain the information they wanted. Their partnership with Harbest would last for six months, but Santos said that they realized a year would be the best length of time to collect enough data about crop cycles for different crops.
Plenty of people are also asking for the numbers. Has their sensor proved to be a key to reducing food loss in the country?
For now, there’s not enough data to understand the impact their device has on preventing food loss, but AniTech continuously seeks opportunities to have their sensor be used by more greenhouses and warehouses in order to know the answer as soon as possible.
Of course, a positive result would not just benefit them, but it would benefit both producers and consumers in the country.
“Even just one percent. One percent [of food loss reduction] would be enormous,” Santos said. “Because one percent on a national level can mean millions [of food saved].”
With the crisis of food insecurity worldwide, any innovation that can become a solution is definitely welcomed. AniTech is one such company that can serve as an inspiration for innovators from different fields, even not from agriculture, to become involved in the sector and help develop more solutions to a problem.
Photos courtesy of Anihan Technologies Inc.