Neurafarm: Putting an AI plant doctor in farmers' hands

Promotional video showing how an urban gardener uses Dokter Tania. © Neurafarm

This startup is riding on Indonesia’s urban farming trend with its planting kit and an AI-powered app that identifies plant diseases from photos of unhealthy leaves

From the smallest garden to the widest fields, plant diseases are a big threat to agriculture. Hobbyist gardeners and lifelong farmers alike have to quickly recognize if their plants are infected and correctly identify diseases in the field, but that requires expertise and many years’ experience. 

To help farmers and gardeners of all skill levels nip plant diseases in the bud, Bandung-based startup Neurafarm has developed Dokter Tania, an AI-powered, image recognition app that can detect plant diseases almost instantly. Users take a photograph of unhealthy leaves in a plant and send it to the chatbot. Within seconds, they will receive information on the disease and guidance on what to do to help the plant heal or prevent the spread of the disease.

Neurafarm co-founder Febi Agil Ifdillah told CompassList the app can detect 30 plant diseases in 14 commonly-planted crops, including tomatoes, corn, and potatoes. Ifdillah is no newcomer to AI, having previously had a one-year stint at Prosa.ai, the natural language processing AI startup that worked with the Indonesian government to stamp out fake news. 

“We want Dokter Tania to be a one-stop solution for farming. Beyond crop protection, the app should support day-to-day farming operations. We want to democratize smart farming and digital farming,” said Ifdillah, whose company is also riding the Indonesia’s urban farming trend with its own planting kits supported by its smart app. 

The company aims to reach 100,000 users for Dokter Tania by next year and will be seeking to raise seed funding to achieve this.  

20,000 images a month

Ifdillah started working on what would, in 2017, become Neurafarm when he was an undergraduate at Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB). He had participated in many hackathons but was keen to solve bigger problems. “I wanted to achieve something bigger; for my product to be useful to many people,” he said.

His first idea was a data-driven integrated farming solution with sensors, automated devices and even satellite imaging, but he later abandoned the idea. “The average Indonesian farmer owns very small plots of land, which means an integrated system would be inaccessible for most farmers,” Ifdillah said. 

Developing an integrated system would be complex and take a long time, so Ifdillah talked to researchers, hobbyists and farmers. He found that a common need among the different groups was a way to protect crops from diseases.

The first prototype of Dokter Tania was developed at an overnight hackathon event as a Facebook messenger chatbot but Ifdillah soon realized that for further development, Dokter Tania had to become a mobile app. The app, which started as a simple chat app, like WhatsApp, grew to its present form as more features were added.

The app has an 80% accuracy rate but its AI algorithm is constantly learning from new inputs, Ifdillah said. Neurafarm receives up to 20,000 images for analysis per month and research staff annotate the images manually to help the visual AI engine improve its accuracy.

Neurafarm also provides access to consultations with agronomists if the app cannot identify a plant’s disease. The app is equipped with other features, such as, news posts, a fertilizer requirement calculator and guides for plant disease prevention and successful crop planting.  

The Neurafarm team receives support from ITB’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development, which has provided it a grant and extensive mentoring. Since 2017, Neurafarm has also received several grants and prizes, including the 2018 Startup Istanbul competition and the 2020 edition of Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge.

Hyperlocal farming

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, more Indonesians are trying out gardening in their own homes or even urban farming ventures. Starter kits are easily found in online marketplaces. Neurafarm sells its own starter kits with seeds, polybags and fertilizer, as well as a one-month subscription to Dokter Tania’s premium features.

“Few youths are becoming farmers these days. Our starter kits will hopefully raise awareness on where our food comes from, which will lead to greater appreciation of farmers,” Ifdillah said. By introducing the joys of planting to more people, he hopes that some will become interested in farming as a career.

The starter kits also helped Neurafarm gain 2,500 new users for its app since July, effectively doubling the number of users to 5,000. The Covid-19 pandemic also increased the app’s MAU “drastically,” said Ifdillah, without specifying the numbers. The company also keeps a Facebook group and hosts online lessons, both free and paid, to stay engaged with farmers and new gardeners who are using Dokter Tania.

Ifdillah believes that urban farming won’t be just a Covid-19-era fad and more hyperlocal farms will surface as urbanites care more about the environmental costs of transporting food from faraway rural areas. While not all types of crops can be grown in the city at scale, people will still be eager to get fresher, healthier ingredients and the best way to do so is to grow their own food, he says. It is also a good way to make money, as some urban farmers have discovered in recent months.

“Urban farming plots can be 15 times more productive than rural holdings,” Ifdillah said, quoting an FAO publication. “This great economic potential means that urban farming can be very attractive for many people, especially the younger generation.”

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Edited by S. Mani

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