*This is the second in a series of blog posts published as part of the author’s ongoing research.
Cevdet Bulut | PhD Candidate | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London
The captain’s announcement comes shortly before the take-off of the flight. Etna – Europe’s most active volcano – erupts for 147th time on this afternoon of 21st May 2023, causing a major disruption to air traffic as dozens of flights to Catania airport are affected. “This isn’t a great start to my field trip,” I am thinking to myself as my flight is now being diverted from Catania to Palermo airport.
After having spent most of the night at the Palermo airport, I finally manage to arrive in Niscemi where the case company is based. I am received by Giusielisa Lo Presti, a project manager at Smartisland, who works with local farmers in Sicily to understand their needs and assist in implementation of Daiki, company’s flagship product for smart agriculture. “The volcano is not a curse but a blessing for us,” says Giusielisa, smiling. “Volcanic ash is a kind of fertiliser that is rich in minerals and provides unique conditions for growing orchard and vegetables with a special taste and [purple] colour,” she explains, pulling up some images of purple cauliflower as an example of the vegetables grown by farmers on the slopes of Etna.
Interviewing Maria Luisa Cinquerrui, Founder and CEO
Named after a Japanese word meaning “Light”, Daiki is entirely designed by Maria Luisa Cinquerrui, an engineering graduate and founder of the company. “The idea that I had while I studied at university. I had previously worked on the family farm and I was aware of the problems my father faced with cultivation. Initially, I wanted to help my father, but then I realised that my product could help all farmers,” Maria Luisa reveals how she came up with the idea to start an IoT business.
Founded in 2016, Smartisland provides solutions to local farmers to monitor and support growth of plants. “The business is still developing today, but we have already made a profit,” Maria says, pointing out the challenges of being successful in the male-dominated STEM world. “Prototyping, building the technology, and finding the right people to work with,” she says, were the most difficult aspects when she started the company.
Irrigation was the first use case implemented. “Water scarcity is a problem in Sicily, which is why Maria Luisa created Daiki; she thought that someone needed to do something for the future of this land. It’s an easy concept, but a strong idea that can change the world,” Giusielisa explains. Today, the product can be configured for use in both indoor and outdoor conditions for various use cases from irrigation to monitoring of diseases and pest detection for orchards, vegetables and crops like corn, wheat and maize.
The company’s primary target customers are small and medium-sized farms, most of which are family-run businesses. What about the skills of farmers? “Yeah, maybe the person who owns the farms, but the one who is investing and really managing everything is the son or daughter. So what’s in the reading it’s different from reality,” Gaetana Galesi replies, an international relations manager at Smartisland. They invite me to join the team for a visit to a production facility located in Vittoria, a neighbouring town.
Emilio, a customer of Smartisland explains how to access and manage Daiki
We are welcomed by Emilio, the owner of the facility consisting of eight greenhouses where tomatoes and peppers are produced year-round in a protected environment. He has been one of the first customers of Smartisland. “You can check your farm from a distance,” he says, who been using Daiki to automate irrigation, as well as to monitor and forecast the amount of water and fertiliser to apply. “They typically collect 35% or more yield. And, water saving of 40%. Even, the quality of tomatoes better,” Giovanni Chiolo, COO of Smartisland, explains the impact the Daiki brings.
Giovanni Chiolo explains the process of fertigation
Soon after, Emilio has to leave but we continue our visit without him. “If you noticed, the owner left us alone on his farm, this is because he trusts us. This is a kind of relationship that we have built with him and other customers. So, we are different from multinationals,” says Giusielisa, underlining the importance of trust for their customers.
The Daiki web interface is showing the captured environmental values of the site visited
The company follows a simple yet effective marketing strategy: word-of-mouth. “Farmers promote our product, Daiki, because they find it beneficial that it has helped them. Therefore, they talk to other farmers and promote it to them,” says Gaetana. So-called “Smart Labs” concept developed by the company plays an important role in this strategy. “These are small artificial farms, where you can test Daiki,” she explains. The company runs a number of these facilities, working with elementary and middle schools to spread the word and promote smart agriculture.
Farmers who are willing to start investing in smart agriculture in Italy are financially supported by the government with a voucher program. “The Italian government is an active participant in this ecosystem with many actors, and we are part of a network with a focus on agricultural development. They are helping us to find matching opportunities,” Giusielisa highlights the role of the government.
Leading a small team of seven from humble offices in Niscemi and a niche client base, Maria Luisa sees greater potential. “Revolution is big for agriculture, and the farmers are ready for it. In recent years, they have been more open to digitalisation.”
What is next for Smartisland? “Complete the supply chain,” she says indicating that she wants to tackle the farm-to-fork use case and open international markets for local farmers.
Smartisland team – Gaetana Galesi, Maria Luisa Cinquerrui and Giusielisa Lo Presti
This is a series of blogs curated by PhD candidate Cevdet Bulut, who is investigating the adoption of IoT in agriculture. In this series, the author shares a limited version of his field notes and highlights from multiple case studies in a news story format as part of his current research study. The scope of the case studies is to uncover what factors (socio-economic, cultural, technical, etc.) affect the adoption of IoT and to gain experience from the field that can guide the design of viable IoT-based business models for the sector. A new blog will be published on each case study with the participant’s permission.
Other blogs in this series: