15 Mar Old problem, modern solution
SERGIO BALLESTER, CEO, INDIGO DRONES, HAS BEEN WORKING TO APPLY MODERN DRONE TECHNOLOGY TO ISSUES SURRUNDING AGRICUTLURE IN COSTA RICA.
Indigo Drones is quite a success story in Costa Rica. The company has firmly established itself as a leader in agricultural drones and precision agriculture. Could you briefly introduce Indigo Drones to the readers of Newsweek, and can you give us a couple of key facts and figures about your company to understand your company’s significance in the market?
Indigo Drones has emerged from my family business, related to agriculture and chemicals, which was founded by my father and which I continued for 10 years. In 2014, we started to introduce the drone technology to agriculture. At that moment, nobody understood how to use it, and they were afraid to try something so new and modern. After a while we decided to sell the agri-chemical business, because it’s a mature market in which we didn’t see many options to grow, and we decided to move on to precision agriculture. So now we are focused 100% on drone technologies.
Back in 2014, when we introduced the technology to the market, we didn’t know much about it. I had learned about UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicles), or drones, back in China where I worked for some time. Over there, they were using agriculture specialized drones that take pictures and spray fertilizers. At that time, they were used manually. We decided to bring this technology to Costa Rica. We were the first to introduce this kind of technology in Costa Rica. We started educating farmers on the possibilities of drones and saw the potential on the market. Education is the cornerstone of our business and our growth.
Agriculture accounts for about 7% of Costa Rica’s GDP, and its produce is exported to 105 destinations worldwide. Lately the sector has gotten increasingly more technology focused. Could you tell us more about your drone technology, and how precision agriculture helps farmers increase productivity and operate more effectively?
The main crops Costa Rica has are coffee, pineapple, and bananas. Those are our competitive advantage as an agricultural country. On a second level, we have sugar cane and rice, which are also very important for our domestic market. Usually, the conventional way to spray fertilizers is with a tractor or with people that have a spray pump. This is a high labor cost type of work: long and tiresome. The tractor itself is a big resource and to move all that around is a heavy operation. As an example, pineapples fields usually necessitate a thousand liters of water per hectare with conventional methods. With drones, this amount can be reduced to 50 liters per hectare. Educating the people is therefore very important: they learn to use technology, they become more efficient, and they have more time to do other work.
In coffee production, the labor is all human, so the impact has been in health security, seeing that the workers are not in contact at all with the pesticides. With banana production, we cannot replace airplanes, but we can go to areas that airplanes are not allowed. We are able to get there and provide more efficiency to the crop, basically creating a better product to export.
What are some of the greatest challenges that Costa Rican and Latin American agriculture face today, and how might the development of this region’s farming technologies contribute to overcoming these challenges?
Agri-education is still reduced or limited compared to Europe or the USA. We don’t have precision agriculture education offered as an option. People must learn by doing the job, but normally they don’t know and that is a big barrier. The second barrier is investment costs. We import this technology, we are not producing it, so it is costly and represents a big investment for farmers and a big decision for them. To overcome this, we have created an agriculture academy, which is an education program focused on providing all the knowledge necessary around precision agriculture, including sensors, satellites, drones, computer software, even satellite drones, and soil sampling. If we tell the market what’s available and how to use it, then they would be familiarized with this and more accepting, enabling new generations to be in the future.
Ongoing supply chain issues, climate warming, and inflation this year are placing a lot of pressure on farmers in the region, who struggle to meet their average yield predictions. How have these emerging pressures on the food production industry of the past few years affected Indigo’s growth and operations?
We have decided to provide credit to farmers to overcome this challenge. That creates a challenge for us because if farmers have extra foreign situations that affect them directly, then they will not pay us. If there are drought or floods, they will not get the amount that they need so it will directly affect us. The cost of pesticides, the cost of fertilizers, the cost of the transportation have all increased a lot. That also creates an impact to us because they don’t have money left to invest in technology. They can only afford the fertilizers in those cases. However, we try to manage the relationships with good attention, keeping the customer with us so that we will grow together.
Indigo Drones harnesses the best of UAV and the internet-of-things to enable farmers to monitor their crops more effectively, and you’ve been doing extensive research on its application on different crops in the country, starting with rice and pineapple crops. What are some of the most exciting research inputs that you have produced so far, and what are some of your latest projects and new developments underway?
The most exciting thing has been to introduce the technology to a market that has been totally new, one that we pioneered. Being a pioneer has been a success for us. Also, we are proud of making an impact for the environment and for the people, by saving water and reducing pesticides. Coming from a company that used to produce pesticides, this is quite an accomplishment, as today we try to reduce them. Knowing that people who don’t even use a cell phone or a computer are able to use this equipment is a huge gratification for us. Someone that has never used a computer is now a drone pilot. This is impressive and makes an impact. They can grow personally. They can teach new generations also. It’s completely changing the market.
During the pandemic, Indigo Drones partnered with German-based Wingcopter for critical medical delivery in remote areas like Talamanca. To what extent do you foresee your drone technology being used in other industries beyond agriculture, and do you have any other success stories regarding these alternative uses?
The idea of this project started many years ago, but we are only implementing it now because the drones are only ready now. Wingcopter is a well-established company that’s already doing delivery service for medicine. In Costa Rica there are many remote areas and providing help to these areas is not easy. We have a free health care system, but it’s very difficult for these people in the remote areas to get the attention that is necessary in a short time. We provide medicines on one way, and from the other way they provide blood samples and different information that comes to a lab in the city and can quickly be analyzed. Therefore, they don’t need to take a week to get the results and know what medicine to get. We reduce it to days rather than weeks. It is not only medicine, but also the transportation of documents or food. There are islands that you can only access by boat to provide certain resources, so we can reduce the time of transportation from 2 hours to 20 minutes using drones.
The global food value chain is currently undergoing major system changes and turning to automation, robotics, and digital solutions to encourage more sustainable food production. What role do you see technologies like precision agriculture and the internet of things play in farming and agriculture in the future? How might precision agriculture transform the Costa Rican economy and its prolific agriculture industry, specifically?
We are looking to change the operations and the production itself. We have not yet come to a completely automated food supply chain. We are exploring different areas because we don’t have access to the technology, so I believe the country itself is grabbing what it can from what it created and trying to adapt the technology. That is something that is going to be difficult because usually the technology is not adapted to our country. We need to develop from the start. In 5-6 years, I do believe there will be a more automated supply chain because of the importance of the private sector and the investment that the country is trying to make. I hope they also try to enter the agriculture sector, not only in medical or industrial sectors.
Amidst global food production challenges, your technology is an attractive option for countries with similar crops, and it is now being used in China and Vietnam. You’ve also recently opened an office in Panama. Are you optimistic about expansion opportunities in countries beyond Central and South America? What other markets show promise for precision agriculture and Indigo products?
We focused our expansion on the crops that are important for the country. Since we already have experience with certain crops in Costa Rica, we try to replicate that experience in other countries. Panama is very close, and we have an agricultural area on the borderline with Costa Rica, so it’s similar climate, similar crops and similar people. To enter that area, it’s the same. We plan to expand next year into sugar cane because it’s an important crop for Central America. Sadly, we cannot work in Nicaragua because of regulations, but in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, sugar cane is the main crop together with corn. We are consolidating sugar cane currently in Costa Rica. The practices here are more professional than the other countries, so we believe that if we bring this knowledge, we could succeed. The way we enter is to find a partner. Usually, we go to the country and teach them how we operate, our methodology, and how we plan to go. We provide some visits to them, the support, the education, and the products directly from Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s unwavering commitment to greening its economy has earned it global recognition, and the country is now investing in its green tech to bolster its efforts. With the global switch to sustainable production in mind, how does Indigo Drones contribute to the country’s sustainability efforts, and promote greener agricultural practices and production?
Our technology is based on electric machinery, and it has replaced petrol, gasoline and diesel. We are increasingly turning toward electricity sources and making the most of Costa Rica’s natural energy provided by water, wind, etc. That creates a virtuous cycle, similar to electric cars, electric vans, or even electric tractors. That is the way technology is improving our sustainability. Additionally, by using technology you can also increase the planting area and enhance crop productivity, and you can use that area to plant more trees and possibly recapture some carbon.
How do you see the future for your company? You will soon pass the 10-year landmark, so how do you see the way forward? What is key for your continued growth?
Having a presence in the agricultural area is very important. Currently we are located in San Jose, and we also have an office in San Carlos. But we are opening more branches next year. We’re planning to open another branch in Perez Zeledon, which is a pineapple and coffee area, and in Guanacaste, where there is sugar and rice. Having this presence also creates an important image, and we want to keep being the best. For now, not many people know us. We are leaders in the market, but we want to keep being there. We also want to bring more people onto the team who can teach more to farmers.
What’s your final message to our viewers?
I do believe in technology. Technologies are necessary, and we need to make a big effort in Costa Rica and in the whole region. I believe that because we are not technology producers, that gives us a slow growth. We need to be ahead of this and try to grab potential support from other countries that can help us go faster. I do believe that we need some support from government, from other countries and institutions that can help grow the sector.