Aerobotics has taken agriculture, one of the oldest industries in the world, and combined it with artificial intelligence, one of the newest. The result? A mind-blowing agritech company with four dynamic CAs pioneering, guiding and growing this South African-birthed company to global greatness whilst competing against some of the world’s best technology.
By 2100, Africa’s population will have reached 4 billion. There is no way our current agricultural output will be able to satisfy the nutritional needs of all these people; it will have to double, and then triple. But how to do this?
Aeorobotics, has found the answer: by providing aerial views of farmland which collates and then packages data, enabling farmers to make better decisions that improve their operations and as a result, sustainability. And, as far as the world of accounts and audits may seem from fields and orchards, four super smart CAs are hard at work playing a critical role in helping this company grow.
The fact that Aerobotics was birthed in Cape Town is significant, Stuart van der Veen CA(SA), Aerobotics’ chief platform officer opines. ‘It means that the technology coming out of South Africa can hold its own against the best technology in the world,’ he points out. ‘Operating in the United States, we are competing against some of the world’s leading industries – and yet we are doing this more safely and efficiently than anyone else. We’re pioneering the way forward and creating a vision of what a future South Africa might look like – a country that moves away from insularity and strives to serve the whole world.’
The two founders of Aerobotics, James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, followed an unorthodox approach to developing the start-up. Instead of identifying a problem they wished to solve, they looked at how they could apply the technology they had available to an existing challenge. It took three months to build the drones and develop the software that became the foundation of Aeronautics – and just six years for the two-man team to grow into an 80-plus member company operating in both South Africa and the United States, and which has been recognised by Google Launchpad as one of the Top 45 start-ups in emerging markets around the world.
Stuart van der Veen, informs that this is just the beginning for the company. There are so many ways for the data it produces to be used, with implications extending beyond the agricultural industry to affect the health and wellbeing of people around the world. This is why the company has placed an emphasis on perennials rather than annual crops, he explains: whereas annual crops tend to place a strain on soil, perennials make for greater sustainability.
This international expansion is critical, as it allows Aerobotics to fulfil its mission to provide intelligent tools to feed the world by using drones, sensors and satellites, Aerobotics is able to collect data about perennial crops that can then be used not only by the agricultural industry but by those which support it, too, such as crop insurance and chemicals – in other words, across the entire agricultural value chain. This data can be contextualised and analysed from a variety of angles, to create greater efficiency and transparency for farmers and the like.
Stuart van der Veen
Chief Platform Officer
I loved Aerobotics even before I joined the company,’ Stuart enthuses, adding that the encounter came about through his involvement in Paper Plane Ventures, the company he founded in 2014 and which led Aerobotics’ Series A investment. The terms of the transaction included Stuart joining Aerobotics to build up the financial services function, although his role evolved when Paterson and Meltzer set their sights on expanding to the United States – which, it had become clear, was where the greatest growth opportunities lay. Now entrenched in Los Angeles, he concentrates predominantly on crop insurance, one of the company’s most significant areas. ‘My role is primarily about how we can make our data more interesting and useful for growers,’ Stuart says.
He admits that he is fascinated by the company’s growth. ‘James and Benji brought a unique understanding and passion to Aerobotics because they first formed the company to solve actual challenges on James’ farm,’ he points out. With this foundation in place, the company has concentrated on scaling the data – an achievement he says would not have been possible without the efforts of former COO Timothy Willis – who is, incidentally, also a CA(SA).
Stuart’s excitement about Aerobotics’ opportunities is almost palpable. ‘Our technology has evolved to the point where our data can tell you how old a tree is and where it is in the lifecycle – all crucial for planning and predicting yield. Often, people create great tech, but if you can’t find the right application for it, it’s useless. That’s why I get really thrilled whenever we find a new avenue to apply our technology. I consider what we’re doing to be art’ – words that, as a keen painter, Stuart doesn’t use lightly. The fact that he is able to mine this creative outlet using the knowledge and expertise he developed while studying towards his CA(SA) qualification makes the job that much more rewarding.
It’s also a realisation of his vision: ‘I knew that whatever career path I chose, it would involve technology – even though I wasn’t sure how it would all come together. I also knew that I would have to strengthen my skills so that I could achieve my business ambitions. Becoming a CA didn’t come easily for me. I really had to push myself. However, the qualification turned out to give me the greatest gift: it made me realise that I can do anything if I work hard for it.’
Head of Operations
Michelle was introduced to Aerobotics through a former colleague whom she met while completing her articles at Deloitte.
What was supposed to be a brief stint to fill a gap while awaiting an international visa turned out to be a learning curve full of excitement and discovery. ‘I love the start-up environment,’ Michelle states. ‘It’s a space where the outcomes of your decisions are highly visible, so it’s easy to see where you’re adding value. What’s more, you don’t have to follow procedures that were set up 20 years ago and have since become obsolete – you have creative licence to do what you know makes sense. I love this autonomy.’
Not that she ever imagined herself working in an agritech firm. Michelle had been drawn towards accounting because of the doors it opens – as she says, ‘every company in the world has a financial function’. The profession also appealed to her analytical way of thinking, which is very much geared towards logic and quantitative answers. Finding herself in this unexpected niche is a boon, she says, as she has developed a deep interest in environmental impacts, and values being able to make a contribution to sustainability.
As head of operations, Michelle has led what was initially a small data operations team with no permanent staff – ‘ironic, because we’re all about data’ – and which is now a highly sophisticated pipeline that prides itself on its efficiency. That pride is well deserved: the team’s turnaround time has improved from one month two years ago to just three days, while the quality of information released to their customers has greatly improved, too.
Michelle is equally proud of the company’s status as pioneers in its field but is aware of the challenges that accompany this. ‘Once other companies see us making headway in the field, they’ll be eager to copy us. It’s critical that we protect our intellectual property and competitive advantage, especially as we become more well known around the globe.’
Scaling is another challenge on the horizon, because building up inevitably creates complications. But, says Michelle, it’s vital that Aerobotics be able to serve clients at expected levels despite the growing volume.
Her approach to addressing such challenges? ‘I’ve learnt that, no matter what is facing you, there are people who can support you. And if you use your logic and break problems into smaller issues, and create a track record that you can look back on as proof that you have come through difficult situations in the past, it helps.’
Head of Strategy
Lindsay believes that, with four CAs guiding Aerobotics, the company perfectly illustrates the versatility of the qualification.
Her career is a case in point: always drawn to business and entrepreneurship, her qualification has given her the solid grounding, skillset and perspective to tackle Aerobotics’ strategy. It’s a role that entails collating external and internal information and analysing it so that it can be used as a basis for data-driven decision-making. ‘This is an incredibly fast-moving field, so we often have to make decisions with incomplete information – which means that we have to use what information we have wisely,’ she comments.
Of course, the ever-changing nature of Aerobotics’ environment makes the job of the strategy team that much more complicated – but, says Lindsay, this isn’t insurmountable. She laughingly observes that it would be wonderful if strategy could be encapsulated in a checklist. But, since ‘strategy isn’t like that’, having a core mission with company-wide buy-in is critical and underpins every decision that is made. This is all the more important when those decisions are made with the incomplete information Lindsay alluded to earlier, because the purpose and company values guide their strategic decision-making. ‘My guiding principle is based on the adage “strong opinions, weakly held” – to be firm on our vision, but flexible in terms of how we reach it. This allows us to change direction if required. You need to be bold and courageous, but also humble and adaptable enough to recognise when a particular strategy isn’t working.’
It’s that fast-moving pace that makes Aerobotics’ environment so exciting – especially for someone who grew up on a farm. ‘Agriculture is very close to my heart, particularly since food security is a critical issue worldwide. “Zero Hunger” has been named one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and it’s a privilege to know that your work supports a global sustainability issue.’ Coming from a background in investment finance, which has a top-down approach, Lindsay relishes the opportunity to build an entity that is new and disruptive.
She also enjoys what this means for an industry which – in South Africa, at least – is very established and traditional. It’s exciting to help farmers, who may be reluctant to change the way things have been done for generations, to see the benefits of embracing technology. Generally, these farmers become more receptive once they have seen the benefits of the insights provided by Aerobotics. Of course, on the other side of the spectrum are the farmers hungry to embrace technology so that they can optimise their production.
Lindsay notes that in the United States, where Aerobotics has expanded its international presence, farming is a very commercialised industry, and the players’ openness to technology made it an obvious choice when the company was looking to expand. ‘With international expansion comes new stumbling blocks, such as adapting strategy and product to different jurisdictions, compliance with local regulations, travel and time differences, and language issues, but we have to accept that as disruptors, we have to face such challenges head-on, focus on our value proposition and believe in our mission.’
natural competitive advantage, Kamal points out. For Aerobotics, this advantage is built on a product so new and unique that the company is able to determine the course of precision agriculture. It’s cementing that advantage – which hinges on reaching customers internationally, building relationships and improving the customer experience.
Aerobotics is doing this well, given there has been increased growth and investments into the company. Having secured funding from large strategic investors such as Naspers Foundry, Aerobotics is well placed to tackle its next chapter. ‘We’re gaining traction in the US, Europe, Australia, and Latin America,’ Kamal reports. He observes that growth over the past two years has been particularly impressive, thanks largely to the growing customer base and investments. ‘It’s especially promising that we have managed to attract the attention of significant players.’
Kamal adds that growth catapults the company into new territory, and this can bring about complexity. ‘For instance, as an entity expanding across the globe, any growth necessitates being able to serve our customers with the highest level of service while also improving scalability.’ However, having successfully overcome the challenges encountered so far, he is confident in Aerobotics’ ability to adapt and adjust.
Kamal notes that the CA(SA) qualification has allowed him to apply fundamental accounting principles to complex transactions in a company that is innovating new services that lack prescribed accounting examples to follow.
This is one of the most challenging and exciting aspects of his role as group accountant.
In this role, Kamal appreciates the network of support that has evolved naturally out of the team. With so many CAs working together, a natural dynamic has developed, and Kamal says that it is exciting to work closely with people who are all focused on improving company performance and building sustainability.
Having joined the company in November, Kamal is thrilled to be on a continuous learning curve. ‘At the moment, I’m studying coding,’ he says. ‘There’s just so much opportunity.’ The ability to take advantage of such an opportunity is precisely why he was eager to become a CA in the first place. ‘My father works in his profession too, and I always saw it as a stepping stone to other industries or even countries.’ Having worked in both Canada and Belgium, Kamal has enjoyed the mobility promised by the qualification – and now, given the niche aspect of Aerobotics’ operations, he’s making the most of the qualification’s ability to open doors.