Asep Bagja Priandana is not your stereotypical farmer. Rather than muddy boots and overalls, Asep wouldn’t look out of place in a trendy startup office as he strolls through his family “farm” — which appears to be little more than a greenhouse that he built in the driveway of their suburban home in Indonesia.
The greenhouse may look simple from the outside but it’s packed with a dazzling array of technology on the inside, including a hydroponic system that allows plants to grow without any soil, special UV lighting for an added boost, and a range of sensors that are constantly monitoring both the plants and the environment to help software decide what actions are needed next. Even the drip irrigation system is automated.
Asep doesn’t even need to be there to inspect the plants because his own mobile app can immediately tell him about the health of his produce online from anywhere, although he’s keen to make sure everything is working correctly.
The vegetables in this greenhouse will eventually end up on plates in the home, but Asep and his wife, Retno Ika Safitri, are not just thinking about their own dinner.
‘I want other people to have the same opportunity as I do,’ explains Retno. ‘They can still have a 9-to-5 job at a place they like, but also grow their own fresh foods at home and maybe sell some excess produce to neighbours or friends. That way, they may have a balanced and fulfilling life and still connect to nature.´
Together, they are now developing new technologies and software to help more people around the world grow their own vegetables — whether in small home projects like theirs or on large-scale industrial farms. They want to help existing farmers grow their crops more efficiently but also lower the barriers to entry so that more people can start growing their own food for the first time, no matter where they live.
They are not only managing the growth of their plants remotely, but also their company. Asep and Retno were granted e-Residency of Estonia, which provides them with a secure digital identity that can be used to establish and manage a global EU company entirely online.
This enabled them to establish Tanibox OÜ to develop their high-tech agricultural business from Indonesia as an EU company with team members and partners in both Europe and Asia.
Their first product is a farm management software called Tania, which already has a growing fanbase of farmers around the world.
‘Our existing users are mostly smallholder farmers,’ explains Asep. ‘But, surprisingly, most of our early adopters are software developers who have a passion for agriculture. Perhaps that’s because we launched our software under an open source license.’
Their greenhouse is just one testbed for their technology, but the results so far are both promising and delicious.
The story behind Tanibox
Asep’s career path has been fairly unorthodox. He studied accounting but then began his career as a software developer in the startup industry before launching his own digital marketing agency.
It was during that time that he met his wife, Retno, who provided the original inspiration behind their company.
Unlike Asep, she does come from a farming background and her
mother still works as a farmer, so she has a keen appreciation for both the opportunities and challenges of the industry. Retno studied IT and also worked for tech companies, but always kept her passion for farming. More specifically, her passion is sustainable precision farming, which involves carefully analysing all the variables to grow crops more efficiently using fewer resources and lower overhead costs.
Asep was intrigued when he first saw Retno growing plants at home. They had a small apartment at the time, but she managed to grow enough produce there that some could even be sold to friends.
Asep looked at her plants from a slightly different perspective. He thought about the data that could be gathered about the plants, as well as how they could be “programmed” to grow even more efficiently. By day, Asep was still building his digital marketing agency into a company with more than 30 employees, but in his spare time he and Retno were researching how IoT (Internet of Things) could be used for “smart farming”.
They looked at different options with the farming software already available, but it was all too expensive and was designed for large-scale farming, not home operations like theirs.
Undeterred, they simply developed their own software, Tania. ‘We thought there must be more small farmers who have a similar problem to us,’ says Asep. ‘So, we decided to release Tania as a free and open source software in 2016. By letting others gain value from the software, we also received valuable feedback to make Tania even better.’
After the success of Tania, they both decided it was time to scale up their solutions and share them with more people globally. Retno left her job and Asep made an exit from his company.
It didn’t take long for them to figure out the best way to establish their new company. They first heard about Estonia when a close friend of theirs was accepted at Tartu University the previous year, which is when they began Googling more about the country and came across articles about e-Residency.
e-Residency provides people living around the world with a digital identity that can enable them to establish and manage their own EU company online from anywhere – just like Estonians already do with their own digital ID cards.
‘We thought e-Residency was a brilliant idea,’ says Asep. ‘Therefore, we applied for our e-Residency and received our cards in Singapore the previous year, although we had no idea what we would use it for at the time. We’ve been thinking global since day one for our startup so we decided to establish Tanibox in Estonia. It was an amazing experience. We have since travelled to Tallinn to open a bank account and went to Tartu to visit our friend.’
Tania is still free, open source and under continuous development based on the feedback of a growing user base. After that, many users gain so much value from the software that they choose the premium version, which includes extra customisation and support.
Asep and Retno have now spent two years gathering feedback from farmers and have discovered a wide range of problems solved by their software for users both in Indonesia and around the world.
Many farmers do not have any bookkeeping software or even simple offline records to calculate their costs and profits, which can lead to miscalculations and a lack of understanding about what needs improving. Even those who do, often don’t factor in all the costs properly and leave out secondary costs, such as extra electricity needed to pump more water, which can make the difference between profit and loss. Many don’t track their usage of resources, such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and water, in order to optimise what they need. Many don’t have access to data about when and where their resources should be allocated so they may overuse fertilisers in areas that don’t need it or have crops that don’t reach their full potential.
Tania has a modular approach so that farmers can set up their programme to fit the needs of their farm or manage different areas of their farm in different ways depending on what is being grown there.
‘For the micro and small farmers, they need simple farm management software, not the full-blown software on the market. For the hydroponic farmers, they need software that can manage the nutrient water because they grow crops using only water. For organic and permaculture farmers, they need software that can have crop rotation and soil management functionality.’
Ironically, developing the software enabled Asep to use his accounting degree for the first time.
The future of farming
‘”The Martian” is one of my favourite movies,’ says Asep, which might not be too surprising for anyone that’s seen it.
Matt Damon plays an astronaut who is stranded on the surface of Mars and has to use the technology left behind by his crew to develop smart farming techniques inside domes so he can survive.
Asep’s vision of the future is similar, although a little more down to Earth. The Tanibox website includes illustrations of modular dome-like structures that are similar to the ones used by Matt Damon in the movie. Tanibox plans to roll out these greenhouses for customers within three to five years so that both large and small-scale farmers can easily set up controlled environments to grow the vegetables of their choice, free of pesticides, no matter where they live or what time of year it is.
‘We are imagining a future where we can grow our food everywhere regardless of the climate,’ says Asep. ‘We imagine a future in which Indonesian vegetables can be grown in Estonia and vice versa, but we also need to factor the economic cost of this, so more research is needed first.’
For now, they are focused on developing an ecosystem around their software that connects farmers to other partners, including landowners, investors, suppliers and experts. They are also inviting developers to create their own software on top of the Tania platform so that it is even better suited to the needs of local farmers in their own areas and niches around the world.
Asep and Retno predict that the variety and quality of fresh food will improve in the future as technology allows farms to become more efficient and diverse. They also believe that as the barriers to entry are lowered, there will be more micro and small-scale farming that will arise to challenge mass production. The expectations of customers will also rise, they say, as more people develop a deeper understanding of how their food is grown.
This may sound like an ambitious vision for the future, but when Asep and Retno sit down for dinner each night, they know that the future has already arrived — at least for them. By building Tanibox as e-residents of Estonia, they hope to empower many more people around the world to enjoy the same opportunities.
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