It all began three years ago for Nisrine El Turky. On a serendipitous mountain commute, a chance encounter with dispirited farmers intent on selling their land set her heart and mind on finding a tech-driven solution to their plight: failure to grow and export high quality produce.
Digging deeper, she uncovered the source of the problem: the Mediterranean fruit fly, a horticultural pest widely considered to be one of the most destructive in the world. Complicating things further was the fact that farmers lacked the proper knowledge of applying adequate amounts of pesticide. Apply too little, and the flies will survive; apply too much, and you end up damaging your crops and killing other types of insects that could have been on your side of the fight against the pesky flies.
“Given that I come from a technological and engineering background, I thought that I should be able to integrate agriculture onto tech in order to solve this problem,” Nisrine explained.
Nisrine is an electrical and computer engineering graduate, a university engineering professor by trade, and an environmentalist by passion. She had always enjoyed hacking and solving problems, as well as designing and implementing projects in a variety of sectors. “Nevertheless, after a while, I thought that instead of wasting these projects, ideas, and innovative solutions without a certain continuity, I should actually persist with the project to actually make it a startup company,” she added. That project was IoTree.
IoTree combines hardware with advanced algorithms. Smart traps catch flies, cameras photograph them, after which the images are then sent to a cloud server where machine vision classifies them. In this manner, the system is able to determine the type of flies attacking the crop as well as the frequency of attacks, and, based on that information, it can accurately determine the amount of pesticides required as well as the best time to apply them.
“With IoTree, trees are given a voice, and the growers are given peace of mind.”
The result is a healthier harvest that contains less pesticides residues, a bigger yield, and savings in terms of labor work, pesticides, and fuel consumption, among others.
IoTree has been incubated by many local – including the Touch Innovation Program (TIP) – as well as international accelerators, including Lithuania-based Women in Tech by Baltic Sandbox and French sprint. It has also received several awards and prizes, having represented Lebanon in UC Berkeley – San Francisco and vivatech paris to name a few. The company has also recently signed an agreement with Lebanese telecom operator touch making it the first NB-IoT application in Lebanon.
But the journey hasn’t been entirely smooth. “We had many setbacks,” explained Nisrine. As a woman working at the intersection of three male-dominated arenas – engineering, tech, and agriculture – “many people did not believe that we can persist in our journey,” she said. “Nevertheless, we persisted despite the fact that some people had traditional mindsets, despite the fact that some farmers had traditional mindsets that didn’t allow them to adapt to the situations.”
Then there was the Coronavirus outbreak. “Most of our engineers and product developers can do most of the work behind a screen,” she explained. “Nevertheless, in terms of plot visits and product installments for new customers, we had a few setbacks given the lockdown.”
“As a matter of fact,” she continued, “the coronavirus highlighted how important it is to have a reliable agricultural sector in hand. Hopefully this will raise awareness further for everyone and help them to realize how important it is to preserve such a sector.”
The outbreak also largely coincided with the economic meltdown in Lebanon. “The economic crisis hit us hard given that our funds were in Lebanese Lira and that they were devalued. Also, given the capital control and our inability to use our credit cards freely, we were unable to import products from China and the US in large quantities any longer.” As a consequence, the company tried to hire more interns and offered them compensation in Lebanese Lira.
In my last question, I asked Nisrine about IoTree’s upcoming milestones. Following the introduction of two new products, NiS and I-farm, “our aim is to expand beyond Lebanon and get external funds so that we can move forward with the business at a higher pace,” before finally adding. “The economic crisis is indeed one major milestone that is inevitable to everyone.