Engineer uses drones to tap data-driven farming demand

Rebecca Muiruri, founder of Drone Crops, prepares to deploy a drone together with her worker. PHOTO | POOL

As production costs remain stubbornly high and weather patterns erratic, demand for precision farming services has grown in Kenya.

Rebecca Muiruri has spent the last one and a half years building up her company to tap into this demand with her drones that help automate agriculture processes like spraying, data collection, mapping, and crop analysis.

The biosystems engineer has always been passionate about agriculture and believes data-driven farming is how Kenya will become food secure.

“My idea is to find ways of reducing downtime, costs, effort, and improve earnings since most millionaires and billionaires are often in frontier industries like agriculture and tech,” she says.

When farmers contract with her firm, she meets with them, understands their pain points, and develops tailored solutions to solve their problems.

Early stage fundraising

Buying or leasing drones is not cheap. Ms Muiruri says being a new space, it took a lot of work to convince investors to put their money into the venture due to risks and heavy regulations.

“I had a never-give-up attitude when looking for investors. I kept all financing options open to see which made the most sense to me,” recalls Ms Muiruri.

Eventually, after many grant applications, she got some funding to kick-start the company with three employees.

“Presently, we can get as many drones as we need because people in our space are willing to help each other, and should I get a big contract and need more drones, I will bring in others to pull that off,” she adds.

Clients and personnel

As a drone service company, the entrepreneur says that certain things must be considered to be profitable. For starters, Drone Crops targets mid to large-scale farmers with a minimum of 100 acres.

“We do fix costing for our services and bring in others on a need basis, but at the moment, the three of us can comfortably handle the tasks. This also minimises our overheads,” points out the 28-year-old.

She emphasises that getting the right people for the company has been the most challenging aspect of her entrepreneurship journey.

“Sometimes you realise there’s no point of synchronisation, and their vision doesn’t fit correctly with my goals, so it’s been hard,” she says of the difficulty in finding perfect-fit employees.

However, building networks with people within the industry has eased the talent acquisition headache.

“A team is everything in a company because you can have the best product, but things just fail to pick up with a mediocre team. However, things can go exceptionally well when you have a mediocre product with an exceptional team.”

Regarding affordability, Ms Muiruri says she looks at the minimal and maximum cost a farmer will use to spray, and do mapping, among other services, to see what makes sense for her while leaving the client satisfied.

“This is a premium service, but to be disruptive, you must be cheaper, faster, and more efficient. So I’m looking at how I can deliver value at an affordable cost to the farmer,” she adds.

Overcoming the hurdles

Of the many challenges Ms Muiruri faces, the biggest is slow technology adoption as most farmers are conventional, and change is never easy - forcing her to do expensive demos.

“Most ask why they should bring a drone which is a bit expensive compared to what they presently use. Getting them to understand how the technology works and what it means for them has been tough,” Mr Muiruri says.

The technology is also a challenge because drones have limited flying time in terms of batteries – you need a couple of batteries to continually fly and reduce downtime.

Growth strategy

The entrepreneur says the key to her growth has been collaboration with people in the space. “It’s a one-on-one marketing approach because when I come to your farm, and do my job properly, you will recommend me to other farmers.”

Currently, she’s not looking to go big. “It’s progress, and I’m getting clients I can comfortably offer services to. As we scale up, it will involve better and effective marketing strategies to reach more clients,” she reveals.

She is not enthusiastic about funding the firm’s growth through loans or equity investment beause “The moment you bring in an investor, a few things will shift as they will want to be considered in decision-making.

“The most likely growth strategy is bootstrapping - more focus on revenue generation and using that to build ourselves, but I’m also looking at grants even though it takes a bit of time to get them,” she adds.

She’s eyeing markets like DRC even she looks at the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and Machine Learning in agriculture.

Misses and lessons picked

Before launching Drone Crops, Muiruri worked on a solar-powered hay baler project.

“This was a critical experience for me because when I went to the market, there was no market for this product as farmers were comfortable using whatever they had. That turned out to be quite the miss,” she recalls.

Even as she was pivoting to drones, she says she learned the value of patience both in client acquisition and bringing in investors.

“For me, it is more of looking in the right spaces, taking time, and properly researching product and funding sources. People were willing to fund me then, but I didn’t know who they were. Take hours, days, or months, if you have to but get the right information,” she advises.

She concludes that rejection is an interesting way of pushing you forward because it strengthens your resolve and probably makes you restructure your original idea.

For other entrepreneurs, she advises that you be tuned to the latest technological advancement and be efficient as you can.

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