Spreading Israel's agricultural miracle
Your food budget has probably begun to feel the effects of a massive drought in China and a half decade of severe drought in Australia that severely hampered one of the world's most important rice-growing areas. In Russia, the hottest summer in 130 years destroyed one-fifth of the country's wheat crop, and a lack of rain in the southeast United States has devastated citrus and other fruit.
Using experience gained from its own mostly desert topography, Israel has long helped farmers in other drought-plagued areas successfully grow crops and raise animals amid scant rainfall. Now, Israel's AKOL - an acronym for Agricultural Knowledge On-Line - has developed a unique Internet-based system to share abundant information ranging from what to feed cows to increase productivity (Israeli cows are world champions in milk production) to tracking fruit growth and scheduling irrigation most efficiently.
"Since its founding in 1978, AKOL has pioneered the integration of IT systems in the agricultural sector and built computer and IT solutions that have won it renown in Israel and around the world," says CEO Ron Shani. The company began on a kibbutz and was originally called Anat Keshev.
"Years before the popularization of the Internet, we had online databases and applications that members of Kibbutz Bror Hayil in southern Israel were able to access in order to improve their productivity," says Shani. "Over the years, we developed applications for many areas of agriculture, including raising poultry, managing vineyards and producing olive oil."
Each farmer's situation is different - and what applies in one locale might not apply in another. Therefore, each one needs an effective tool to determine what they need to do based on their specific resources, location and capabilities.
A time to plant, a time to sow
AKOL has developed applications that advise farmers when to plant; which crops would be best for their area; what feed mix to give their cows; when to harvest and bring crops to market; ideal storage procedures for their climate; how to track the growth of chickens or livestock; how to implement temperature control procedures based on changing weather; how to generate reports of milk samples for quality control - in short, everything a modern, professional and industrialized farm needs to thrive. The level of information and interaction is unprecedented for average farmers in developing countries.
The AKOL platform also provides farmers with the critical ability to communicate with their colleagues. This gives them the opportunity for a give-and-take on how to manage plant or livestock diseases, advance their growing or raising projects or make group purchases of supplies. "If there is an outbreak of bird flu, for example, farmers can let each other know so they can attempt to protect their fowl," says Shani. "For the first time, low-income farmers have the ability to get top-level information from professional sources, and from each other. "
After various incarnations and owners, AKOL is now fully owned by the kibbutz and has moved its applications to the "cloud" - letting users anywhere take advantage of the applications and get tailor-made solutions. In effect, AKOL has developed the first - and currently only - cloud-based software to service agricultural needs, with the express idea of exporting Israeli know-how to the developing world. And no less a company than IBM has taken notice.
Partnership with IBM
Last month, IBM signed a cooperation and development agreement with AKOL to expand the scope and range of its offerings, enabling hundreds of thousands of farmers around the world to access applications and information provided by the company. The agreement was signed at the recent Agro-Moshav industry trade show in Tel Aviv, where cutting-edge Israeli farming and agricultural technology was on display.
The database and applications will live on the cloud, administered by IBM, which will manage access and technology issues while AKOL will provide the content. Right now, the company has about 15 employees, although it hires larger numbers as consultants on specific projects and also is set to expand considerably in the wake of the IBM deal.
"IBM has made it a goal to provide products and services around the world, especially in the developing world," says Shani. "And what the developing world needs more than anything is the ability to feed itself. We are proud to be part of that effort."