Sunday March 3rd, 2024
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The Jordanian Startup Using AI to Save Palm Trees

After seeing his family farm in Jericho affected by red palm weevils, Zeid Sinokrot founded Palmear to detect the pests with AI.

May El Habachi

Jordan-based agritech startup Palmear is combining big data, AI and sound engineering to detect an invasive pest - the red palm weevil - and prevent it from threatening the region’s date groves. Founded in 2019 by Zeid Sinokrot, Palmear works alongside governments and farmers across the globe to monitor and control weevil infestation before it spreads in palm trees, saving not only farmers’ livelihoods, but also agricultural produce. An engineer turned entrepreneur, Sinokrot first thought of developing an AI-powered device against weevils after seeing the severe impact of the pests on the family farm in Jericho. Farmers were struggling to detect the pest infestation using a doctor’s stethoscope, leaving them with no option but to burn or spray the infected trees with pesticides.

“I saw the problem in front of me, and thought to myself it would be great if there was technology, a device to enable the farmer to listen inside the tree,” Zeid Sinokrot, Founder and CEO of Palmear, tells StartupScene. “Because when I saw this problem happening, the only way to detect this particular pest is if someone listens inside the tree. So, I looked out and researched everywhere, but I didn’t find something similar.”

After spending three years developing the AI-powered device, Palmear now works with entities in Indonesia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, amongst others. It is also expanding its range of services to include tools for measuring soil health, as well as providing solutions to vertical and indoor farms in the UAE.

HOW IT WORKS

The technology works by using sensors to detect sound in trees, and AI to decipher and analyse these sounds. While the device was mainly developed to detect pests in date palms, it also works on a wide range of palm trees including mango, coconut and avocado trees.

“Before this technology, farmers would only be able to detect the pest at a late stage,” says Sinokrot. “By detecting it early, farmers are able to save trees, treat only the infested tree at the right time rather than spray the entire farm with chemicals, and eventually eat and consume its produce.”

Agriculture plays an important role in the Middle East. Although it represents only 13% of the region’s GDP, 28% of the population is entirely dependent on agriculture,according to  the Middle East Institute. Controlling pests and infestation is therefore paramount to preventing financial losses to both farmers and countries.

With AI constantly evolving, Palmear is making its technology smarter by regularly feeding it with more data. The more data it has, the more it will be able to differentiate between pest sounds, thus making it more knowledgeable.

“What we were able to do at Palmear is basically take the knowledge that we’ve encountered and learned in the past three years, and put it in an AI-powered software,” says Sinokrot. “And that AI just keeps on improving, so any farmer can have extraordinary hearing powers as well as extraordinary detection capabilities.”

REACHING FARMERS

But like any new product, getting users on board can be difficult. This is especially true for farmers who are often reluctant to adopt new farming technologies, and prefer using traditional methods instead.

“How do you convince the farmer to use this product and that it’s going to help him?” says Sinokrot. “There is a big barrier between technology and farmers, and this takes time to break. However, when a farmer listens to his tree being eaten from the inside, this barrier quickly drops.”

One way to encourage farmers to use the device is by meeting them where they are. Sinokrot and his team travel frequently to countries suffering from pest infestations to do product demonstrations and reveal how the device can work on a large scale. While these outreach efforts are usually successful, strengthening relationships between the team and farmers, they can also be time consuming.

“That cycle is a bit long, especially when you talk about new technology,” explains Sinokrot. “A longer life cycle means that you have to maintain your business, and do more of these trials and showcase the product while maintaining the back end.” Regardless, Sinokrot believes that this is the best way to grow the startup and reach new users, particularly since word of mouth is one of the most effective forms of marketing. “I think it’s vital that we try as much as we can, and form that trust bond between us and the farmer.”

CREATING IMPACT

As the weevil infestation continues to be pervasive in the region, so do solutions to combat this problem. Farmers typically treat infected date palms with pesticides several times a year, which is not only harmful to the surrounding environment, but to the produce as well. “If pesticides are used, we cannot eat dates for three months because of the chemicals inside,” Sinokrot says.

Using non-invasive detection methods can therefore significantly contribute to reducing the need to use toxic chemicals, which can penetrate the soil and affect other species such as plants, animals, and of course, people.

“A farmer used to resort to using pesticide all across the farm, six times a year, but now he can treat only the infested trees,” explains Sinokrot. “In most cases, we were able to reduce total pesticide consumption by more than 40% throughout the season.”

Ultimately, however, by developing a solution to address a pressing problem, Sinokrot was able to spur innovation in the Middle East. While the region is home to numerous technological advancements and innovations, most of them are brought in from other countries. But through Palmear, Sinokrot hopes to set an example of how local innovations can be scaled globally.

“We may be consumers in the region, but we are also creators,” says Sinokrot. “I would love to see more homegrown products originating from the region. I would like to be an example of how solutions can be scaled globally, and to fuel more creation.”

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