Dr Chashi: How using AI can strengthen our agro sector

May 12, 2023

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Medina Ali met pre-existing obstacles when she started to work on software-related aspects in the agro-sector. So she founded a start-up based on using AI to bridge knowledge gaps, help farmers – and do much, much more.

Chowdhury Rashid Hasan works in the private sector and lives in the country’s capital. He has a small farm in his ancestral village. Last year the gourds from his kitchen garden were a popular hit, and he had plenty for himself even after selling a majority of the produce.

This year, however, most of his gourds went to waste. As he’s unable to visit his farm every week, Rashid must rely on farmhands for support. However, apart from informing him when something goes wrong with the crops, the farmhands can neither identify what is wrong with the plants nor take action to fix the problem.

It is usually too late by the time Rashid reaches the field.

To that end, a method to teach farmhands and farmers how to identify problems with the crops and take necessary measures would immensely benefit millions of people like Rashid.

This is where Dr Chashi, a Bangladeshi start-up focused on agriculture technology, offers a comprehensive digital solution for farming activities powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Founded by Medina Ali (left), Dr Chashi team works with AI models and helps farmers, via their app, to detect diseases and insects, and much more. Photo: Saqlain Rizve

Their most significant feature is an online application, which can scan images of a diseased plant, identify what’s wrong with it and generate a solution within seconds.

Upon opening the online app, the user selects the crop they are inquiring about. After that, they can either take a photo using the camera module built into the app or upload an image from their gallery. After the image is uploaded, the disease detection algorithm starts. The algorithm can identify what’s wrong with the plant with 92% accuracy.

“We put in the functionality to upload photos from the user’s gallery because, in many cases, farmers don’t have access to good quality internet in their fields located in remote areas,” explained Biswas.

During a demonstration for The Business Standard, the sample was a Malta plant whose leaves had seen better days. After a few seconds, the app announced in Bangla that the plant was being invaded by a life miner, a small fly whose larvae tunnel into the plant leaves to form a kind of mine and eat away the leaf tissues.

Photo: Saqlain Rizvee

Next, the app instructs how to deal with the issues using organic solutions since Dr Chashi aims to limit the excessive use of inorganic pesticides. However, the inorganic methods are also available if the infection is severe. Using the Global Positioning System (GPS) data, the app could also direct where to find the products needed in the users’ vicinity.

So far, they have conducted four pilots to collect information for the AI model and test the usefulness of their products.

The question remains whether farmers can access smartphones, the internet and the necessary skill set to use such an app. Atif Ahmed Akkhor, Business Development Manager, Dr Chashi, says, “With the Covid-19 pandemic, people, although by necessity, have become more open to adopting new technology”.

According to the ICT division around 80% of farmers in the country have button phones while 55-60% of farming families have access to smartphones, and they are quite handy with their devices.

“Since most of our core user base is farmers, the app has been developed with them in mind. Not only is the app available in Bangla to make life easier for them but the functionality to read out all instructions has been built into the app,” said Atif.

Dr Chashi’s primary services include detecting diseases and insects, recommending ways to treat diseases, recommending products, finding the closest dealer, giving farming advice based on the weather, gardening advice, training, and live education, crop market prices in real-time, community for farmers and gardeners, advice on farmers’ health and safety, an interactive voice assistant and a call centre.

Photo: Saqlain Rizvee

Medina Ali, Founder and CEO of Dr Chashi, comes from a family that has been involved in the fertiliser and agriculture business for more than 40 years.

After completing her studies in the United States and returning to Bangladesh, Medina started her software journey, in line with the family’s agricultural background. “My goal was to implement AI in some of the prominent industries of Bangladesh like energy, agriculture, etc,” Medina told the Business Standard.

When she began working on software-related ​aspects​​​ of the family business’ distribution channel, she found many problems in the agricultural sector.

“​​That is when the idea of using AI to help farmers came to me, and we started Dr Chashi in 2022. Together with my team, we identified three key challenges troubling the agricultural sector: The inability to identify diseases, a notable gap in farming knowledge, and the unchecked use of fertilisers and pesticides.

So, we devised a three-pronged solution to these critical issues an app that helps farmers identify insects and diseases plaguing their crops, a comprehensive farming management system, and data-driven solutions to all things farming,” explained Medina.

Dr Chashi has, so far, taken more than 67,800 images to train their AI model. Currently, the total number of crops they cover stands at 17. The total number of diseases and insects the AI model can identify is 68 and counting.

However, Dr Chashi did not just stop there.

Its application and farming management system offers a range of features that help farmers to manage their activities better. For example, the farmers’ performance tracking feature tells them how well their crops are doing and helps them figure out what they can do better.

The real-time crop market price feature gives farmers the most up-to-date information on market trends so that they can get reasonable prices for their produce.

Dr Chashi’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data analysis helps farmers better understand the land they are farming. They use the help of satellite imagery to aid them with this. However, in some trickier cases, they have to send people in to collect the photos manually.

This information can be used to make informed decisions about planting, harvesting and crop rotation. In addition, the seed variety recommendation feature provides farmers with information on the best seeds for their specific location and climate.

The financial monitoring and sales tracking feature provides farmers with detailed information on their expenses and sales, enabling them to manage their finances better.

There are two versions of the Dr Chashi app. One is free of cost on the app store, and the other version, which has more features, is targeted towards B2B clients and is a paid service.

Last December, they had a total user base of more than 50,000 on the B2B side of things. On the Google Play Store, they had nearly 500 downloads. By that time, their total detection stood at more than 11,000.

For their contribution to accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through innovative solutions, Dr Chashi was selected as one of the top eight finalists at the Springboard 5.0 Programme of Youth Co:Lab, which incubates youth-led startups and social enterprises with mentorship, grants and networking support. Youth Co: Lab was co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation.

Dr Chashi also won the Champion Award at the BASIS National ICT Awards 2022 under the Inclusion & Community Services – Sustainability & Environment category.

Dr Chashi started off self-funded. In the pre-seeding round, they raised $3,00,000 by themselves. The start-up had very recently received the ‘Idea’ grant from the Bangladesh government. They hope to wrap up pre-seeding by this year and raise one million dollars when applying for seed funding

When asked where they wanted to see Dr Chashi in future, Akkhor replied, “Being a common tool in the farmer’s toolbox. Like fertilisers are tools for them, we want Dr Chashi to be another.”

The other goal is more ambitious; it involves gathering enough data and developing the processes necessary to make that data detectable to create a noticeable impact at the national level and eventually, crossing national borders. Dr Chashi’s team believes that if they can cover the whole of Bangladesh, they can cover 10 countries with similar economic and climate conditions to Bangladesh.

“This dream was boosted when we spoke to the World Bank. They have a programme called the 50×2030 initiative to close the agricultural data gap – seeking to bridge the global agricultural data gap by transforming country data systems in 50 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America by 2030.

We aim to help them achieve that by digitising the data that is now being collected manually,” Medina concluded.

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