Back to the future of agriculture

This last blogpost feels special, because it is not only about the end of my one year journey through the training and coaching provided by the wonderful people behind the IUPAC convention, but also the beginning of the next step. I will tell you about the future of our project, but first I want to take you back to the very beginning: the IUPAC conference in May 2019, organized by Pieter and Nathan. Back to the conference on the future of agriculture.

The NextGen competition started out as an idea that Pieter and Nathan had, because they believed the young generation is the key to innovation. Little did they know that they were then, at that time, sowing the seeds for a new collaboration with the very same people entering their competition, one year into the future. During my project, my idea changed form from a very technical crop protection app, to the belief that we first need to create a network that facilitates innovation, before focusing on technical solutions. The current idea is to build a peer-to-peer e-learning course where innovative farmers teach their peers the most recent techniques to improve their production. It took one year of discussions and experiences to come to this conclusion. Now, we are finally ready to start working and make this vision come to life. This is where the coincidence happens.

During the corona crisis, we needed to find someone at Ghent University who was willing to help us with the contract and any legal requirements to set up our collaboration with the innovative farmer. Well, it turns out nobody at Ghent University has ever tried anything like this before, and there is absolutely no standard operating procedure in place. So not only did we have to face the practical difficulties of a pandemic lockdown, we were also facing the pillars of bureaucracy. This was my first experience with trying to break new ground in a large, heavily compartmentalized organisation. Some of you will be smiling at this point, because they know how this plays out. Long story short, one thousand emails later we had spoken to everyone anyone could think of, and managed to find what we need: a professor willing to vouch for us, so that a legal structure could be built around her/him. Luckily, we found a man who we knew was interested in innovative ideas: Pieter Spanoghe, the man that started it all.

So, one year after the conference, me, Nathan and Pieter were back together again with the evolved version of the idea that won the competition Pieter issued in the first place. In hindsight, it would have been much more efficient if we had figured all of this out in May 2019, but we know that’s not how innovation works. As an entrepreneur, one of the most important skills to learn is to be adaptive to your environment. It doesn’t pay to be stubborn in the face of evidence that suggests a different course of action. A project is a dynamic, living thing, which changes course in response to new information.

In the end, we had to go back to the roots to be able to move to the future of this project. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere. With the experience of the past year, we will now start working with Jacob Van Den Borne towards building the first e-learning course for farmers, by farmers. Jacob is the CEO of Van Den Borne Aardappelen, one of the most advanced potato growers in the world. He has been using precision agriculture for years, in cooperation with a variety of academic institutions and has built his image as an authority in the field. I’m excited to start this journey together and to see where it will lead us in the future.

Simon Appeltans – N-GAGE Champion

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