Michael Gomez Selvaraj, Crop Physiologist at CIAT
Behind the farmer mobile apps, workshops and shiny interface of EcoProMIS, a creative and dedicated team are working to collect and process data. The team are developing our data platform, which is unique in the breadth of data that is collected, including crop information, greenhouse gas emissions, farmer interviews, and satellite and drone imagery.
Birds Eye View
Across our pilot sites in Colombia, our colleagues are recording all of this information. One of the most exciting parts of the job is the flying of drones above farmers’ fields to capture high-resolution images.
At EcoProMIS, our fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, the technical term for drone) make regular flights to capture these images. They are not standard photos, but have a high spatial and high temporal resolution, captured by special cameras and sensors attached to each UAV.
Our fleet of drones includes octocopters and quadcopters, vehicles with eight and four rotating blades respectively. By using drones, we can collect data in a non-invasive way and with greater accuracy and cost-effectiveness than historical ‘boots on the ground’ data collection.
This is cutting edge technology and together with the other data inputs gives EcoProMIS unrivalled understanding of each farm.
CIAT team with one of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used for field observations
The UAV images collected in each field are sent to the CIAT phenomics platform, a computer that can process and ‘stitch together’ all of the images. As the science partner on the EcoProMIS project, CIAT are based in Cali, Colombia, where their team of scientists merge the data from thousands of high-resolution images.
To merge and analyse these images, they use fully automated software. This is CIAT’s Pheno-i image analysis framework and provides the solution for processing the high volume of raw images.
From the result of the analysis, the team are able to extract vegetation indices, a form of information that can indicate plant health and productivity. Correlations can be made between vegetation indices and key crop agronomic traits, which provides the information required to build the crops models and then pass on the knowledge to support farmers.
The drone images are further enhanced by combining them with satellite images of the farms. This is another exciting part of our work, to be covered in more detail in a future blog article, and is delivered by the UK company Pixalytics. As a project funded by the UK Space Agency, the use of satellite data was a key component of the project design and appeal.
The result of this UAV and satellite data is a highly advanced and accurate product to serve the agricultural sector.
Knowledge for Farmers
The use of the UAVs allows us to gather sophisticated data which can then provide support to farmers in the form of a knowledge-rich mobile application.
The EcoProMIS team is currently developing the first of these ‘knowledge services’ for growers of rice and oil palm. These services, built on the drone images and other data, will predict yield and provide decision support to the growers.
Yield prediction is one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge for a farmer. With this knowledge at their fingertips, the grower can understand if the crop is performing well and if this is not the case to investigate and address limiting growth factors. Furthermore, as growers continue to interact with EcoProMIS, using the knowledge and uploading their own data, the crop model will improve in accuracy.
It is our intention that the drone data, combined with the other sources of farmer data, will provide a strong ally to growers for the shared ambitions of achieving food security and environmental sustainability.
Sam Adams, Agricompas Head of Programmes
At EcoProMIS, we are well aware that our project is both exciting as well as full of demands, requiring careful planning and communication. In my last blog article I explored how we are managing the complexities of a five-year international agri-tech project.
I mentioned in that previous article that to help manage complexity, we have implementing a new cloud-based project management system. Today I share a bit more about that process and how we have introduced ‘Gantt’ to clarify roles and responsibilities, manage expectations, and design a robust and logical workflow.
Cloud to the Rescue
The EcoProMIS team is spread over seven organisations, based in multiple sites in both the UK and Colombia. There is a six hour time difference. Because of these logistical realities, we have chosen to work with cloud-based digital communication and project management.
So, like most of us during this time of global working-from-home, we have been extensively using digital communication tools. How grateful we are that these tools are widely available! It would have been a very different picture just a few years ago.
In practice, this means that for daily communication we use a mobile chat app, the usual email correspondence, and we are slowly getting used to Microsoft Teams (having previously used Slack for years, this is a bit of an adjustment).
In addition to these daily conversations and regular team meetings, there is still the need for an advanced system of project management. For a project of our size, this is a gi-GANTT-ic need. So over the past weeks and months, I have been setting up a Gantt chart system for our EcoProMIS project management.
For those who are unfamiliar, a Gantt chart is a way of seeing a project’s lifespan in a single image. It shows all of the tasks in chronological order. Further details can be added, such as who is responsible for each task, and which tasks are dependent on others.
Most projects have a timescale of 3-6 weeks. EcoProMIS however, is a five year initiative, so the scale and detail required in our Gantt is significant. I have certainly enjoyed the challenge of creating it.
Open Source Trial
In order to choose the most appropriate and affordable Gantt software, I tested six different products. Most have the same features and similar pricing, so it was difficult to navigate the options.
Initially I settled on Open Project, an open-source product that can be self-hosted. Having access to our own servers and our own world-class IT team meant this seemed like an easy option, and the open-source values resonate with our vision to make positive change in the world.
Unfortunately, the maintenance for this self-hosted option was excessive and beyond the availability that our team had. I made the reluctant decision to start again and transfer to a paid system hosted in the cloud.
Remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic means we are working from home.
Leaving Open Project behind, I settled on a dedicated and affordable product called TeamGantt. It is a responsive and clean-looking Gantt chart, with all the features that we required. In early June I rebuilt the entire project plan from scratch on this new system. This was frustrating but ultimately served to refine the end result, which is now working well.
The EcoProMIS Gantt structure is based on quarterly tasks and milestones. This is because each quarter we deliver tangible outputs and report on these to our funder, the UKSA.
A Dynamic Map
It is an important point to state that the Gantt chart is not a static document that once created is filed away somewhere. Part of the purpose of the chart is that it is alive, a tool or dare I say ‘friend’ of the project. It is used as a dynamic and responsive communication and management resource.
In practice, this looks like using the Gantt chart in a screen-share during our meetings, to communicate expectations around each others’ roles, and to plan timelines and scheduling.
A Gantt chart is also a reference point for everyone in the project to use. At any stage and any time zone, our team can login in to the website and see their own tasks, their colleagues’ tasks, and how the entire five year project fits together.
Likewise, it can serve new arrivals to our team. For example, recently I met with Rodrigo Gil, our new Crop Modeller, to look at the Gantt and show where the project has come from over the past three years. This forms an essential part of new colleague induction.
Effective Project Delivery and Culture Change
All of this work and technicality is ultimately to aid the smooth delivery of a complex multi-faceted project. Our new cloud-based Gantt chart is a great asset to the team, and I believe will improve our ability to reach the demanding goals and cutting-edge targets of EcoProMIS.
The colourful and clean digital interface is appealing and immediately gets attention. The details of the task interdependencies and scheduling of roles and timeframes, means that all partners are better equipped and more accountable in their work.
I also note that by introducing an effective Gantt chart, it can bring an organisational culture-change. Using an accessible Gantt chart contributes to a change in mindset from loose project delivery and inefficiency; to a much tighter project, with greater cost and time efficiencies and hopefully a happier, more connected workforce, better able to deliver our mission to support the Colombian rice and oil palm growers.
Libardo Ochoa García, Agricompas Colombia Project Officer
The Ecological Production Management Information System, EcoProMIS, is a project implemented in Colombia and co-financed by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA).
The British company Agricompas has been developing the EcoProMIS idea over the last four years, with the support and collaboration of Colombian institutions Cenipalma, Fedearroz, CIAT and Solidaridad, and the companies IWCO and Pixalytics in the UK.
Collecting Farm Data
At the end of the EcoProMIS project, in 2022, a “platform” will be created that collects, with the active support of growers, agronomic field data and correlates it with meteorological and environmental data, as well as with satellite and drone earth observation data.
EcoProMIS processes this rice and oil palm production data in near real-time crop production knowledge with the help of crop models and algorithms (mathematical information processes).
Knowledge to Support Farmers
The above agronomic knowledge is combined with environmental, market and socio-economic knowledge, to generate practical information for decision-making in rice and oil palm crops.
Colombian rice and oil palm farmers will receive crop production knowledge to support their decision making at no cost, as long as they share and upload their crop data on the EcoProMIS platform. For each farmer and each plot, detailed supportive information will be generated.
A Strategic Alliance
The knowledge services that EcoProMIS will provide to growers are developed in close collaboration with our partners; the rice and oil palm growers and their federations. EcoProMIS activities include workshops in Casanare, Meta, Tolima and Magdalena wherein growers are interviewed and trained in data collection, concepts and ideas are shared, and partners participate in the development and testing of new knowledge services.
The EcoProMIS team are currently developing the first ‘knowledge services’ for rice and oil palm. These services predict yield and calculate water demand in both crops. Yield prediction is important for the grower to understand if the crop is performing well and if this is not the case to investigate limiting growth factors. Further it helps the farmer with planning the harvest and processing logistics. Regarding crop water requirement; the farmers will be able to establish in time how much additional water is required in irrigated and rainfed systems per crop cycle for rice and per year for oil palm. Water is fast becoming a scarce commodity.
Support with Drought
A practical example of applying EcoProMIS knowledge in daily life by Colombian farmers can be illustrated with recent events during the first half of 2020. Rainfall was scarce and the average annual rainfall is expected to be below the historical average. The questions arise, how will water shortage affect the rice and oil palm crops? And how much water is available for agriculture or industry?
With the EcoProMIS platform, farmers will have access to near real-time knowledge about crop water needs vs. the expected rainfall and thus be able to make better management decisions. This will help farmers to decide whether or not to invest in or use irrigation. In addition the grower could use the information of water shortage to justify a yield loss claim in case of insurance against drought.
A Joint Sustainable Future
After the project is finished by mid 2022 Agricompas will commercialise the platform as the new independent knowledge creator and broker in the crop value chain. EcoProMIS will provide “Knowledge for Free” to our grower and federation partners and “Decisions for a Fee” to major value chain players such as input and equipment providers, insurers and banks, and processors and traders. EcoProMIS’ ultimate goal is to empower and support growers and increase their productivity and profits while reducing the environmental impact and improve the socio-economic conditions of all stakeholders.
Sam Adams, Project Manager, Agricompas
It was six weeks ago that I joined Agricompas, becoming the EcoProMIS Project Manager. It was also exactly six weeks ago when the COVID-19 lockdown began here in the UK.
For all of us, these are unfamiliar times and starting this role has been a surreal experience. While I have engaged immediately and enthusiastically, social distancing has meant that I have not been able to meet any colleagues, let alone collect my new laptop! Instead, the last six weeks have been a constant roll of virtual meetings, Skype calls, and digital file sharing.
An Exciting and Demanding Project in Colombia
The Ecological Production Management Information System, or EcoProMIS, is an exciting and complex project, bringing with it great opportunities as well as unique challenges. Spanning two continents, time zones and languages, and working in remote rural locations, our work is full of management and logistical challenges. Add to this our use of cutting-edge technology, collecting vast amounts of satellite and UAV (drone) data, crop modelling, and IT architecture, EcoProMIS is a demanding initiative.
Sam Adams joins EcoProMIS from ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute
We work in a diverse consortium, which is a major strength of the project and also requires ongoing and clear communication and project management. The consortium includes the national federations of rice (Fedearroz) and palm oil (Cenipalma) in Colombia and CIAT, a scientific centre. Pixalytics work with the satellite EO (earth observation) data and IWCO with IT. Solidaridad provide socio-economic expertise, while Agricompas provides management and leadership.
The context of lockdown has added to the complexity of our work at EcoProMIS. The corona pandemic has been a huge shakeup for our whole planet and I know that we are all facing increased complexity in both our personal and professional spheres.
For a Project Manager, I believe that one of the key functions is to help bring structure and clarity to complexity. That has certainly been a big part of my work over the last six weeks. To help deliver this clarity, while ensuring we meet our milestones on time and to budget, I have prioritised four tasks that will benefit the optimisation of our project:
Information Gathering and Project Management
My first task has been information gathering. The time difference between the UK and Colombia means that the mornings are frequently used for research and learning. Each afternoon, as my colleagues in Colombia start work, I look forward to regular phone calls to build connection and hear each other’s priorities, needs and challenges.
Secondly, the complexity of our project and its layers of work packages, milestones and tasks, are benefiting from a new and improved project management system. Based on the cloud, this is being shared with our entire team so that there is clarity over each other’s tasks, responsibilities and schedules.
Increased Internal and External Communication
The third task to help manage complexity has been to introduce a new system of internal communication and reporting, ensuring it is regular and sustainable. I am pleased to say we have a new and clear reporting schedule that mitigates the challenges of complexity through maximising transparency.
This updated communication schedule will both connect us professionally and connect us personally, as we create space for listening and for cultural exchange. Another way I am doing this is by using more Spanish in our meetings (¡Estoy haciendo lo mejor que puedo!).
Finally, we are engaging in more external communication. A new communications plan is being developed and this blog has been kick-started with a regular schedule of stimulating content to look forward to. Likewise, our social media channels have been revamped to further aid our storytelling. You can follow the EcoProMIS Twitter account here. By the end of the year we aim to launch a movie telling the EcoProMIS story.
A Time of Hope
Coronavirus has certainly added to the complexity of all of our lives. At the same time, it presents a forced slowing down and with this, an opportunity to take a breath, to catch up with backlogged tasks, and to reorganise and improve systems.
I feel that I have joined the EcoProMIS team at a golden time, not at a time of hopelessness, but one of reflection and hope. In this period of lockdown, it is a gift for us to bring new systems of management and storytelling, and by doing so navigate our way through complexity so that on the other side, we are stronger.
Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas and Project Lead of EcoProMIS
The global corona crisis has a severe impact on our daily lives. National lockdowns are restricting travel and preventing us from seeing family and friends. It is scary and depressing how control of our daily lives has vanished without warning.
That’s why I bought ten fertilised chicken eggs on the internet and placed them in an incubator. Always good to have something to look forward to! Three weeks later my children hatched five healthy chicks which are now under a heat lamp provided with ample feed and water.
But wait! Did we really do that properly? In the middle of the night my wife had to check if the chicks were not too hot or cold, hungry or thirsty. Of course, they were all fine but “better safe than sorry” especially when growing crops or raising livestock as we do in agriculture.
The challenge of sustainability
For decades now our planet has had to feed increasingly more people while its resources are more and more strained. As a result, we are faced with deforestation, biodiversity loss, people displacement and soil & air pollution.
Although we see examples daily, little is done to create more sustainable systems as economic interests compete severely with social and environmental interests which are difficult to express in financial metrics.
On the one hand it is not in the short-term interest of politicians nor corporates to sacrifice public electability or shareholder profits while on the other hand NGOs, philanthropists or the angered public lack the resources, organisation and reach.
As a result, we create partial and disjointed solutions that reduce problems rather than solving them in a whole system approach.
The idea behind EcoProMIS
In 2016 Agricompas hatched the concept of an Ecological Production Management Information System or “EcoProMIS”. It is a system that can create valuable solutions while combining the competing interests of the different stakeholders in one commercially viable business model.
EcoProMIS is a data analytics platform that processes comprehensive crop data as detailed as per-field-in-near-real-time. It provides “Knowledge for Free” to growers & partners and “Decisions for a Fee” to stakeholders across the entire crop value chain.
These services aim to improve the efficiency of economic, technical, social and environmental processes.
Government support and funding
A project proposal was successfully submitted to the UK Space Agency in 2017 for four million pounds of funding in the International Partnership Program (IPP2).
EcoProMIS received this funding in order to improve the productivity and profitability of rice and oil palm growers in Colombia while minimising environmental impact and improving socio-economic conditions of the crops’ stakeholders.
From February 2018 onwards Agricompas and six partners including Pixalytics (UK), Cenipalma, CIAT, Fedearroz, IWCO and Solidaridad (Colombia) have been executing the 50-month project in Colombia with a delivery date by end March 2022.
Thereafter Agricompas will continue to operate the “commercial” EcoProMIS platform for the benefit of its users – partners such as the 16,000 rice growers, 5,000 palm growers and their federations and customers such as the input and & equipment manufacturers, traders & processors, banks & insurers, wholesalers & distributors, and governments & NGOs.
During the last two years we have been installing professional equipment to collect weather and greenhouse gas data at four different locations across Colombia. We are building cloud-based IT architecture and applications to process data with machine learning and Artificial Intelligence into knowledge.
We are developing completely new offerings and testing these with prospective customers in a solid business model, while aware that this is a massively complex and ambitious project.
During the next two years we will continue to refine and optimise data collection, deepen the data processing, and test our offerings and business model.
Communicating our work
We want to share the exciting and ambitious work that we are doing. That is why, from now on each of the project partners will write a series of regular blogs about their organisation, activities, experiences and objectives within the EcoProMIS project.
Over the past two years, we have attended numerous expos and agricultural forums to share about our work.
Roelof Kramer, the EcoProMIS project lead and Agricompas CEO, in the British Embassy stand at the Agrofuturo 2019 exhibition in Medellin, Colombia
Hope for a better future
Yes, the world is going through a rough time and it is very depressing that even with our good intentions sustainable agriculture currently doesn’t exist. Across the world, we lack the comprehensive and detailed data collection, and the processing of data into knowledge and viable business models to offer services that satisfy all crop system stakeholders.
EcoProMIS is more than “just another project” that finishes when the funding runs out. It is a solid promise that is being developed by motivated partners into a whole system approach that creates true sustainable agriculture: a system that supports poor and rich growers, unites commercial and non-commercial parties, and supports NGOs and governments.
That is something really fantastic to look forward to! I wish you and your family health, hope and happiness.
Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas, has presented for first time the EcoProMIS project during the 19th International Oil Palm Conference, one of the most important events of Palm Oil celebrated in the world.
This event is celebrated every three years by the National Federation of Palm Oil (FEDEPALMA) and its associated research centre (CENIPALMA). It gathered more than 1500 attendees this year and it is a meeting point for palm oil growers, researchers, government institutions, NGOs and all other actors of the Palm Oil supply chain. With more than 30 different countries, 100 stands and 67 talks, definitely it was the right place to introduce EcoProMIS project.
Presentation of EcoProMIS project by Roelof Kramer, CEO of Agricompas, at the XIX International Conference of Palm Oil in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
EcoProMIS for oil palm and rice is a collaborative three-year project running until April 2021. The results will be a data analytics platform operated by Agricompas that will provide a level of free knowledge to growers to produce better crops and paid decision support to other players in the oil palm industry to improve their processes. EcoProMIS aims at sustainable agriculture by increasing productivity and profitability of crop production while minimising environmental impact, protecting biodiversity and improving the socio-economic conditions of the stakeholders.
Columbia is the first in the list of palm oil producers in America and the fourth around the world. The collaboration between growers and the investment in research and development has made Colombia a key competitor in the delivery of Palm Oil worldwide. EcoProMIS is aligned with the future goals of making Colombian growers even more competitive, but also taking care of the environmental and social impacts.
The objective of EcoProMIS for rice and oil palm in Colombia is to improve the sustainability of cropping systems worldwide by increasing productivity and profitability while minimising environmental impact, protecting biodiversity and improving the socio-economic conditions of the value chain stakeholders.
Informative sessions to introduce EcoProMIS project to growers in Colombia. Evaluation of grower activity and interest through surveys.
During July and August 2018, Solidaridad and Agricompas organised grower meetings in Casanare, Meta, Tolima and Magdalena. In workshops with growers a better understanding of the grower needs was achieved and their interest of becoming part of the project was developed. Surveys and questionnaires were completed in order to collect productivity, environmental and socio-economic data. From December till March 2019 the first data collection trials will be conducted in the four regions and growers will be further involved in EcoProMIS activities.
Solidaridad introducing EcoProMIS to growers and collecting valuable information about their current needs.
As part of the EcoProMIS project, several IoT data collection systems will be placed in the fields. These systems will collect real time data related to weather, greenhouse gas emissions (CH4 and CO2), soil humidity, etc.
On the left, EcoProMIS partners learning how to fly drones (on the right) to collect crop UAV images.
The combination of data coming from different sources as weather stations, EC flux towers, satellites (Sentinels 1 and 2), drones and IT devices, will facilitate to create an IT platform that will support growers to take informed decisions and provide also knowledge about the current state of their crop.
EcoProMIS partners installing the first Flux tower to track the gas emissions from the field.
EcoProMIS partners from the UK and Colombia met in Bogota to agree the tasks and timeline for the next milestones to be delivered before the end of August 2018 in order to be approved by the UKSA. Partners are: CIAT, Fedearroz, Cenipalma, Solidaridad from Colombia and Elastacloud, Agricompas, Rothamsted and Pixalytics from the UK.
EcoProMIS partners visit rice and palm fields in Colombia. On carefully selected fields comprehensive crop data will be collected.
From the 11th to 15th June, they worked intensively not only to agree dates and next steps, but also to visit the rice and palm fields in Los Llanos (Meta and Casanare) on 13th June. As part of EcoProMIS project, several IoT data collection systems will be placed in the fields and it is of the paramount importance to locate them in the right place to get the best and reliable data.
This visit was crucial to achieve the first goals of the project: Creation of a prototype of the IT infrastructure, definition of phenotype data sets and installation of the measurement systems.