The difference that being innovative and digitised can make is brought to light via Norway’s farming community. Given its testing terrain and harsh climate, the sector has always had to think outside the box to farm its vast rural areas. However, after a change in startup funding focus in recent years, the role of technology is rising in prominence. And as such, local successes are being showcased with a view to global traction.
Making improvements across areas of data collation, livestock control and soil management, the notion of overcoming natural challenges with digital processes and systems is indicative of the nimble startup culture that exists in the country – and also the need for such an industry to embrace innovation.
“We have seen this trend evolving, with more and more farms starting to look at digital solutions in an accelerated way,” said Lars Petter Blikom, CEO at Farmable. The company addresses the lack of digitised monitoring solutions that exist to accurately record tree crop data. Incepted in 2018 in conjunction with Norway’s largest fruit farm, Fruktgården, and digital venture fund, Norselab, it is already present in more than 13 countries around the world.
“We were tired of out-of-touch agritech and the lack of digitisation in daily farming operations,” Blikom added. “And even though there was still a lot of conservatism and scepticism directed at many digital tools, this was largely because the industry was still evolving, which resulted in a ‘cart before the horse’ issue. That picture is now changing, with advanced AI-based tools becoming more commonplace.”
Sustainability and digitisation, hand in hand
Farmable set out to break a norm, whereby farmers were locked into traditional ways of working, caught in rigid supply chains and unable to upset the status quo with drastic alternative methods to manage data.
Lars Petter Blikom, Farmable
The Covid-19 pandemic helped this transition as farmers in countries around the world realised how fragile their food supply systems were.
“More farmers are beginning to realise that they need to digitise their farms to make them ready for the future while also protecting the land,” said Blikom. “This fits well into the Norwegian startup psyche, with a strong focus on sustainability and digitisation working hand in hand.
“While the hardware on farms has shown great strides in modernisation, the software, in general, has lagged behind. Farms in Norway are no different in this aspect,” he added. “However, the focus on innovation and building digital solutions to solve challenges in the very traditional industry has increased tremendously over the years.”
Funding changes mindsets
Blikom attributes this snowball effect to an increasing number of incubators, accelerators, investors and companies coming out of Norway. In the Oslo region alone, 2,200 startups and almost 200 scaleups have emanated from the ecosystem. More importantly, this deluge now caters for a broader range of sectors and use cases.
“Lots of farmers in Norway have always been very clever at getting the maximum out of their land. Meanwhile, the country has always been very innovative and creative from a technology perspective. But now we are seeing those two elements brought together via a stronger focus on farming from an innovation point of view, and better funding to go with it.”
This is the perspective of Hans Kristian Westrum, founder of SoilSteam, a company built on trials initially conducted in the 1990s to use steam, instead of chemicals, for soil management. As weeds and fungi became resistant to chemicals, steam was brought back to the table – having previously been used back in the 1970s – as a more sustainable, clean, effective and safe way to protect the land.
“The difference now is the technology behind it, using AI [artificial intelligence] to improve the speed and management of injecting the required amount of heat into the soil,” said Westrum.
He affirms that SoilSteam could now run as many as 20 of its machines in Norway alone, such is the demand, but notes that this uptake on a broader industry scale has been driven by the support given to startups such as his.
“Previously, money in this country was channelled towards oil, gas and fish. But now, funding bodies like Innovation Norway are branching out and exploring those industries that address agriculture or the idea of being sustainable and green,” said Westrum.
“It’s led to a cluster of companies like ours working together over the same period these past few years, sharing knowledge and proving to farmers in the country that digitisation is the way to go.”
If it works in Norway, why not globally?
Another company that has received this backing is Nofence, which keeps livestock within boundaries without physical fences. It is turning heads on an international scale.
While SoilSteam has already received interest from the US and the country’s large-scale agricultural operations, Nofence’s global-first technology has the UK on its radar as a first port of call beyond the Nordics.
Heading up the UK expansion is Synne Foss Budal, UK country manager, who has already helped to secure 25 UK customers and is hoping for a similar level of interest already seen in Norway.
“Farming represents more levels of society than you might think,” said Foss Budal. “Yes, you do have the older relatives who have been farming for 60-plus years, but there is also an adoption curve relative to the younger demographics coming in and looking to improve efficiencies or revenues.
“I think that’s why we’re seeing a chain of events, starting with improved emphasis and funding around agriculture in Norway, leading to more tech startups exploring a traditional space, with those companies gaining immediate traction due to the need for digitisation. This leads to quick scaling and then international opportunity among these companies.”
In Nofence’s case, its proposition caters for a range of benefits. In Norway, not having to build physical fences in volatile environments is a massive perk, but this is compounded by the safety and security of the livestock themselves. A collar is attached to each animal, and as they approach the edge of their jurisdiction, a sound is automatically set off, warning the animal to turn away before a light pulse is administered if the audio cue is ignored several times.
This “shock” is a minuscule percentage of one they would receive from a real electric fence, and the farmers can set the boundaries on the app.
“It’s a technology that facilitates the behavioural intelligence of the animals, the needs of the farmer, and the unique layout of every individual farm, anywhere in the world,” said Synne.
“It’s a perfect example of why Norway has become a global gateway for new tech. If you can develop a solution that solves problems in the most challenging of conditions, thousands of metres high, then farmers around the world will soon realise that they would stand to benefit from that solution too.”