With France potentially facing a shortage of farmers in the decade ahead, Kim Huynh-Kieu has created an application called Biosphere to help newcomers to the sector grow food using natural methods. And it bears something of a resemblance to a certain ‘90s computer game...
Kim Huynh-Kieu is an all-rounder. His surprising career has led his from pharmaceutical sciences to music to computer programming to design. He’d be an easy fit for the offices of Station F, Europe’s biggest startup incubator, located in Paris and founded by French telecoms magnate Xavier Niel.
However, it’s the millionaire businessman’s new project, “Hectar” – an agricultural school for the farmers of tomorrow, opening soon – which could, in fact, be a better match for this multifaceted individual. Kim Huynh-Kieu’s diverse experience led him to wonder about the role of agriculture in today’s society. His interest turned to new farmers, a third of whom come neither from the countryside nor from crop-growing backgrounds. And he foresees them having a future worthy of the developers everyone thought were uncool just some years ago, before Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook.
Through contact with these new farmers, he came up with Biosphere to help reduce the time, risk and complexity involved in starting out in the sector. This application bears a resemblance to the SimCity computer game, popular in the ‘90s, where players could build (or destroy) the city of their dreams by adding factories, crops and more.
In the app, a grower can design the market garden of their dreams. And thanks to models of artificial intelligence used by Facebook or eBay, the Biosphere app helps farmers protect their crops from pests (like slugs) and choose the best complementary varieties of fruit and vegetables to plant based on their precise location. To boot, the app integrates weather data, predicts red flags for growers to keep an eye on and offers advice on the fruit or vegetable to plant to maximise yield from a small plot of land (300 sq m to 5 ha). ETX Studio asked the app’s creator a few questions.
How can Biosphere be useful for new farmers?
There is a problem with food resilience. This problem isn’t new, but it is starting to become critical. Mindful of this are young gardeners or market gardeners who want to work with agroecology techniques, in other words, [in ways that] preserve the planet’s resources. These techniques may be ancestral, but they are completely unknown to these new generations of farmer-gardeners. So, one year ago, we launched Biosphere to help them find solutions, between their needs and nature, to produce food.
You note that these new farmers are also sometimes actually just gardeners.
59% of French people have a garden. That represents 10 million people in France. When you have 400 or 500 sq m of garden, you want to have a vegetable patch, like our grandparents, and to take control of the food you eat, or in any case, bring back homegrown things to your plate. These people are getting into agriculture to make the most of their outdoor space while taking control of what they eat. And among them, some think “why not go into farming?” This percentage is far from negligible. It represents 30% to 40% of newcomers to market gardening.
Why did you choose to work on an app rather than on a robot, for example?
I left my job as a designer to spend several months with farmers and to practice market gardening, in several countries. For a year, I worked on a model for a robot assistant. But the investment was much too high. We realised that the real problem to solve, when getting started in agroecology or permaculture, is the complexity of the knowledge [required] for novices. With Biosphere, we wanted to remove this impediment.
How were you inspired by Facebook or eBay when making the app?
Internet giants identify our tastes via our data (in other words, our clicks). In relation to these, they “push” videos onto our virtual wall or T-shirts onto websites we visit. We use exactly the same interactions to “push” roses or daisies – in other words, the most judicious planting choices – next to those that you already have. Like on a social network, the app also envisages events like “leaf growth” or “bug attack”. This data is then taken into account by machine learning and is honed to help other users. – AFP Relaxnews