Henri Hekman was major shareholder of the BLGG Group, the leading laboratory for soil analysis. In 2013 he sold the company to Eurofins. But instead of enjoying his retirement, he chose to start something new. Inspired by his analytical background but with the addition of IT and statistics, he founded Dutch Sprouts.
The choice was easy for him: "Starting something new was simple: I had the knowledge, money and people. So the question was not why, but rather why not? Besides, I wanted to do something for humanity and this was the ideal chance."
Dutch Sprouts offers a number of products, of which products for the analysis of soil samples are the most important ones. Every farmer knows that the composition of the soil is important: the nutrients that are in it decide what can be grown and how much of it. Worldwide the soil composition is mainly determined by chemical analyses. Based on these results, a fertilizer recommendation is made. The analysis of a soil sample can easily cost 60 to 70 euros and is daily practice, at least in most parts of the Western world. However, this is very different in, for example, Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe. Farmers in those parts of the world do not have the right techniques at their disposal nor the financial resources."
"The SoilCares scanner, not bigger than a drill, allows you to take a sample anywhere in the world. The data are sent to our computers via a smartphone."
"Especially for this group, we have found a solution. We have made a link between the digital scan of the ground based on the infrared sensor and the chemical analysis. By taking 1500 samples and analysing and validating the scans, we can now predict which substances are in the soil based on the scan. The scan is, as it were, extrapolated with existing data."
"It provides a whole new business model. The SoilCares scanner, not bigger than a drill, allows you to take a sample anywhere in the world. The data are sent to our computers via a smartphone. Within seconds the analysis is made and sent back. Payment is done through the local telephone network. No more expensive analyses: just a few dollars. It is real-time and also manageable for poor farmers! Not only an analysis is made, but also an instant fertilizer recommendation tailored to the local availability of raw materials."
"If you translate this concept into marketing terms, mass is the keyword. Many small amounts together eventually lead to profits."
"If you translate this concept into marketing terms, mass is the keyword. Many small amounts together eventually lead to profits. Fortunately, there are a lot of farmers in the world and more poor ones than rich ones. The reason that we are mainly active in developing countries is not only based on social grounds, but simply on commercial considerations."
You must be heavily betting on sales and marketing if you want to conquer the whole world?
"Not really. The key is that this technique is game-changing. We see a production improvement of 50% up to double the output. Believe me, that's not difficult to communicate. We are already being approached by cooperatives and growers from all over the world. Even governments contact us."
"Yes, a doubling of the production transcends the interests of individual farmers. Quite apart from the fact that some countries want to be self-supporting, the economic contribution is so significant that the gross national product is affected."
Does every farmer have to buy its own scanner?
"We sell the scanner at cost, approximately 2,000 euros, and that is of course getting cheaper as the sales increase. It is expected that there will be a new market for intermediaries. They measure the soil; the farmer pays them, for example, $ 5 and the intermediary pays us $ 3 per analysis. Larger cooperatives for, amongst others, coffee, sugar and grain, and large farmers will obviously buy their own scanner."
"Technique sells itself: have you ever been contacted by Facebook with the request to open an account?"
Henri continues: "Furthermore, we have also developed a compact laboratory for this group, the Lab-in-a-Box. This compact laboratory measures more accurately than the scanner, and can be placed on a jeep, if desired. We already have 30 orders for the lab-in-a-box, especially from East Africa, as well as Ukraine and the United States. An analysis with the Lab-in-a-box is more complex and takes more time than an analysis with a scanner, for which more support is needed from the Netherlands. We will not open our own offices for the scanners. We will just start from the analogy of the drills and expect the SoilCares scanner to eventually be sold through sites like Amazon and Bol.com. "Technique sells itself: have you ever been contacted by Facebook with the request to open an account?"
Another innovative product is the Scoutbox, especially designed to identify and count pest insects. This is also based on digital technology and databases: sticky traps hanging in greenhouses to monitor pest insect population are automatically counted and analysed. The sticky trap is placed in the Scoutbox and a digital picture is made."This picture is sent to our computers and a count is made of the insects and the type of insect is determined. The gardener then gets an overview on his computer with the type of insects and how many insects are present in his greenhouse and where. A lot of tomato growers in the Netherlands are already using the Scoutbox. "
"The market demands more: we are now working to develop a database for trips, so the Scoutbox can also recognise and count these trips."
"The market demands more: we are now working to develop a database for trips, so the Scoutbox can also recognise and count them. Trips are tiny bugs that can be found on plants and flowers, and which may cause problems for export."
Why develop? It is exactly the same system, isn't it?
"Yes, but you have to realize that we have to interpret the pictures correctly and that requires a lot of programming. A tiny fly that flies against a sticky trap, sometimes bursts in different pieces. Our software then needs to reconstruct a head, leg or wing to one fly so it does not count them as three flies. IT is our R&D!"
Finally, Mr. Hekman would like to give an advice to the agricultural world: “Manage your business in a more rational way! A farmer might see his cow as Klara 2, I see it as a factory. There is input, output and residues. The point is to optimize this and that is only possible with IT and lots of sensors. Knowledge is power, which is something well known, but it is still unexplored ground in this sector. Even the process in a modern greenhouses can be further optimized."
"Forget what you've learned from your predecessors. Let statistical software find a causal link between all measured variables, because believe me, there is one!"