Interview with Claudia Rössler from Microsoft
Discover how Microsoft is harnessing state-of-the-art technology to transform the agriculture industry. Learn more about Azure FarmBeats, CropData and more!
As one of the world’s leading technology companies, Microsoft Corporation is using AI, IoT and blockchain to transform the AgTech industry. With platforms such as Azure FarmBeats, Microsoft is working to rapidly build data-driven agriculture solutions with farmers and businesses around the globe.
About Claudia Rössler
In Claudia Rössler’s 25-year career at Microsoft, she has held a range of prestigious and exciting positions, including Audience Marketing Specialist, Business Development and Strategy Analyst, and Director of Industry Solutions. Today, as Microsoft’s Principal Program Manager for Azure Global Engineering, Claudia Rössler develops strategic partnerships around digital innovation and AgTech solutions within the agriculture ecosystem. She has also served as a voluntary Advisory Board Member at Women in Food and Agriculture since 2018, been a Venture Partner at Radicle Growth since 2020 and been the Director of Board of Directors AGI - AG Growth International.
The global agriculture industry still faces some key challenges in the gathering of data, especially when looking at the topics of connectivity, cost and scale. How is Microsoft working to tackle these different spheres?
I would consider agriculture as a late bloomer when it comes to digital transformation. The ability to collect data is so essential for an industry to become digitised, so the introduction of new sensors, more connected equipment, the ability to analyse image data from drones or satellites at scale really helped with the data collection piece. But then data ended up in silos, so Microsoft focuses on three things:
One is we help with the aggregation of data coming from this different data input, so putting everything in one platform in a standardised way, which then is enabling organisations to build digital agricultural services on top of this platform.
Second, we are invested in bringing connectivity to farming because without connectivity, you cannot get insights on farms. So we have a team called Airband that made a commitment to bring connectivity to two million households in 2020 in the US, and 40 million all over the world, which is a significant contribution to getting farms connected as well. They work with local authorities on changing policies, but they also build public and private partnerships to help bring connectivity to those farms.
And then lastly, we really want to fuel innovation around Artificial Intelligence and machine learning because it’s so essential. It’s not going to be done by one company alone, so we are building an ecosystem of partners that build solutions on top of this platform, but we also work with academia and research to develop new algorithms that are important for agriculture.
Microsoft is pioneering the field of data analytics with its cloud computing service Azure. Which actors in the agriculture industry is Microsoft targeting with this service? And what data-driven insights does Azure FarmBeats provide?
Yes, we’ve seen this increasing interest in digital agriculture, not only in the AgTech world but also in traditional organisations, such as the input providers thinking about outcome-based services, OEMs providing more precision application, See and Spray concepts, risk management for insurances and banks, and—really important for consumer goods companies—the ability to monitor the sustainable footprint of their product.
FarmBeats as a platform is crop-agnostic; it’s relevant for any farm practice. What we focus on is the aggregation of all those different inputs that are relevant for analytics. This could be satellite, weather or equipment that’s running over farm sensors, bringing it into one geospatial, temporal date store and cleaning it, aligning it, fusing data, so it’s available for advanced analytics. And that really takes the heavy weight from those organisations to take care of data. We believe that it’s really helping to focus those organisations' resources on data signs and agronomy and not just data preparation. We think we can play an important role in making the launch of those services more efficient and also help them scale on a global level.
Another interesting company utilising Azure is CropData's e-marketplace, Agriota. How is the platform's technology helping Indian farmers improve their yields? And in what ways can buyers expect to benefit from this technology?
Yes, this is an e-marketplace that allows smallholder farmers in India to connect directly with bulk buyers. And it really started from this idea that every farm is different, and it’s just not fair to subsidise or insure farmers in the same way when they can achieve different results.
When CropData started, they thought about this being an advisory service for farmers and governments that sort of predicts the best way to treat a farm—what to plant, how to manage it, and how to increase yields. But it turned out that farmers weren’t really as keen on the advisory services. What they are interested in understanding is how much income they can get from their products. So they [CropData] switched their concept around, and they can now use the same predictive analytics to predict the quality and yield that’s coming from the farm and give farmers security about how much money they can accomplish with their yield early on.
So this also keeps the farmers incentivised and motivated to put the best effort into their farm to accomplish those goals. They use blockchain technology to have this transparency throughout the supply chain. I think that it’s a very innovative model that can revolutionise the smallholder market, and we’re really proud to partner with CropData on the project here.
Microsoft has invested heavily in AI and machine learning while addressing the topics of productivity and sustainability in agriculture. Tell us more about the company's commercial and academic efforts in these fields.
Yeah, absolutely! When you think about the different challenges that need to be addressed from a sustainability aspect—all the different crops, all the different diseases, all the different kinds of livestock, different climate zones—there are so many challenges that need to be addressed with AI and machine learning that not a single company or organisation alone would be able to address them. So from a Microsoft perspective, there are two things:
We’re trying to harness this ecosystem of partners, the independent software vendors, AgTech companies, startups that are building solutions on top of our platform. We have a dedicated investment in AI for Earth, an initiative that started in 2017, a 50 million dollar investment to drive innovation around biodiversity, agriculture, climate and water. And the idea is to democratise AI. It’s helping both scientists and business owners use technology to analyse climate data and make the insights, models, data that’s been coming out of this work available for the broader good and broader use.
One of the latest projects that this team has started is called The Planetary Computer, which takes advantage of everything that can be seen from image data, what can be recognised from satellite data, and it also uses the power of crowdsourcing where citizens can share observations, so truly bringing the power of advanced analytics AI with crowdsourcing to solve some very difficult issues.
Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that the company plans to become carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 it will remove all the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since its founding. How is Microsoft tackling these ambitious goals? And in what ways will these efforts affect your department(s) down the line?
Our focus on carbon is not something new. In fact, Microsoft implemented a carbon tax as early as 2012 for all of our departments. What is new is this really strong commitment to being carbon negative by 2030, removing all of our emissions back to what they were in 1975 by 2050, and implementing this climate innovation fund—the one billion dollar fund to fuel new techniques and technology around carbon removal.
We’ve optimised our own footprint, we’ve worked with our suppliers, but really what we're looking for now is new ways for carbon removal. To that end, Microsoft started an RFP which resulted in 189 submissions coming from 40 countries and then we just sort of picked the first round of projects, which were 26 projects equalling 1.3 million metric tons of carbon removal.
So far, only two projects out of those 26 were in agriculture. I absolutely want to see more agriculture projects. But that really goes back to the absence of strong protocols and verification infrastructure and an affordable way to have a complete measurement on farms. We’re working closely with partners in the industry to come up with technology that will enable this market in the future. So I’m really positive to see more agriculture carbon projects in the future there as well.