The PlatFarm Team was the First Place winner in the Dev4Dev Cleanweb Hackathon

Last Thursday and Friday, November 14-15, some very cool techies met at the “Dev4Dev Cleanweb Hackathon” at the Google Campus Tel Aviv with one goal—to develop apps that would change the developing world. The first event of its kind in Israel, submissions for the challenge were accepted and a pre-event was held in October to set the ground rules and form working teams. Thursday was an exciting morning when briefs for about 30 apps were presented in short pitches to the audience of international participants, investors and judges. From the apps chosen as having the best potential for success, teams were formed and they went to work. For the next 36 hours, team members that included developers, business professionals and designers were planning and developing their apps, knowing that at the end of the event, only one app would be chosen as the winner. The Hackathon was the brainchild of IsraelDev, a one-year-old organization that works toward linking Israeli technologies and businesses with the developing world. Besides Google, other sponsors of the event included the Pears Foundation and the Cleanweb Initiative. Cleanweb is an emerging movement that applies hi-tech solutions to global problems of natural resources.

The Winning Challenge

Adam Abramson

Adam Abramson

Adam Abramson (possibly the only non-techie participant), a Harvard graduate of environmental science and public policy, brought a challenge to the Cleanweb Hackathon that would directly help the farmers he works with in Zimbabwe. For his doctorate in desert studies from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, he studied water and irrigation management in remote regions of Africa. For his post-doc project, he is working hands-on with local villagers in Zimbabwe who grow food and send it to market. He looked into mobile agriculture (M-agri), which integrates cell phone applications for smallholder farmers, but there were not any apps that were applicable to his project. He realized that since 70% of the African population has a cell phone (expected to reach 100% next year), he could propose an app that would help his farmers save time and money getting their produce to market. His challenge was to create an app that would be designed for a specific model of contract farming, which turns out to be a niche market.

Platfarm—An App for Contract Farming

Contract farming is an emerging concept in developing economies. Instead of one huge farm where a landowner can make a lot of money, agricultural production is divided into small plots that are owned by participating households. This way, smallholder farmers share in the work and in the profits.  In an exclusive interview, Abramson told A Jewish Israel, “Within the first two hours of team discussions, we realized the main problem that contract farmers face is logistics. Contract farming has a central hub but the farmers can be scattered anywhere.”

Controlling Harvest and Shipment

With that in mind, the team went to work to build the Platfarm app that would address two issues. The first is to coordinate the planting so that there is continual harvesting throughout the season. The time of harvest can be controlled with irrigation, so the app would alert the farmers not only when to plant, but also how to control the harvest time. The second point is to arrange a schedule for trucks to go from farm to farm throughout the area to collect the produce. Today, the farmers are investing 20% of their profits to paying for a truck to take their crops for them. Through the app, the farmers will be notified as to what time the truck will arrive at their farm so they will have the produce ready to ship. By coordinating harvest times and pickups, each farmer will provide a steady stream of produce and they will drastically reduce the cost of shipping.  The third element of the Platfarm app is an automated text messaging service that connects farmers with central management. Farmers can send notices ahead of time regarding the state of their harvest, and the management can take that information and send them a text message with the exact pick-up time. The application, which is updated real-time in the field, looks something like a web calendar integrated to a Google map. The primary end user is the contract farming organization, with smallholder’s using its text communication service.

Going Forward with Platfarm

During the two days of the Hackathon, there were 12 team members designing a user interface and developing an algorithm. The judges, who came from different countries and various business backgrounds, chose Platfarm as the winning entry. With help from a monetary prize, the team members will continue development as Abramson works on the ground in Zimbabwe to test and refine the app. As for now, the next stage will be an accelerator program that IsraelDev is planning for March 2014.

Abramson adds, “We are not yet looking for venture capital with an exit in mind, but we will need funding to get to the next stage of development. We are currently holding meetings with Israel NewTech, which is a new program in the Ministry of Economy, and other interested parties. If all goes well, we will pilot Platfarm in two to four months.”