During his years studying in Japan, Pham Thanh Toan thought a lot about how to use technological innovations to make Vietnamese farmers’ jobs easier.
When he returned to Vietnam, Toan, 33, founded MiSmart Smart Technology JSC with the aim of applying automatic technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) to agricultural production, which is challenging for a young entrepreneur like him compared to others.
Overcoming numerous obstacles
MiSmart uses autonomous devices and AI technologies that use Big Data to supply digital solutions to agriculture such as irrigation and remote monitoring systems.
According to Toan, who earned a master’s degree in artificial intelligence in Japan, MiSmart has developed and produced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at a lower cost that helps farmers spend less on technology while improving their crop yields. The company develops both the hardware and software for the UAVs.
The entrepreneur has dreamed of building such devices ever since he studied in Japan a few years ago. “When I was studying abroad, I read the news on the Internet about the tricky situation of farmers who had to sell their agricultural products at a much lower price every time they had good crops,” Toan recalled.
“I want to turn this sadness into actions that can make a difference,” he continued, explaining the reasons behind his decision to focus on applying innovative technology solutions to agriculture in Vietnam.
The entrepreneur believes he is fortunate to have been able to study in Japan, a country known for its prominent level of science and technology. The years of studying here have given him a lot of useful knowledge, including existing technological solutions that can be learned.
As a case in point, Toan is interested in the way the Japanese use autonomous drones to spray pesticides in agriculture to increase efficiency by more than 50 times compared to traditional methods. In addition, such drones help reduce pesticides and protect farmers’ health while helping increase production.
With these thoughts in mind, Toan met an old friend, a PhD student studying in Australia, and shared the idea with him during a Lunar New Year vacation. The two decided to find answers to the problems of Vietnamese agriculture at all costs.
In their research, they encountered many obstacles, in particular, they could not buy some parts or equipment they needed for their projects. While such equipment is not made domestically, they also cannot order it from abroad if the number of purchased parts is too small.
They overcame these challenges by making many things themselves. Their first prototype UAV, including Demeter VS20, was unveiled in 2020. Despite its lightweight, the Demeter VS20 can lift heavy objects and operate autonomously, semi-autonomously or manually. The device folds neatly and resists dirt.
In terms of efficiency, the Demeter VS20 can increase a farmer’s labor productivity by over 25 times compared to traditional methods. It can also help farmers improve pesticide spraying efficiency by more than 20 times, in addition to saving 30 percent of the amount of pesticide and 90 percent of the water used.
Thanks to these remarkable features, the drone enables farmers to quickly control a plant disease even in a large area. This brings further benefits to the growers in terms of production and exports.
Eventually, the device can be an alternative when there is a shortage of labor, which is quite common nowadays.
Once a poor student
Few people know that Toan had an extremely difficult youth. “In 2006, I was able to enter college with a fairly good grade, which was enough for me to study in a special class for gifted students at the Faculty of Information Technology of the University of Science under the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City,” Toan recalled. “At that time, it was very difficult for my family to fund my study because of the excessive cost of living in Ho Chi Minh City.”
Fortunately, Toan said, he learned from a Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporter who lives next door that the newspaper had been giving scholarships to help poor students with good academic records.
“The memory of the touching feeling of receiving the scholarship of VND3 million [US$131] is still fresh in my mind,” Toan recalled.
“I was able to cycle from the newspaper’s headquarters to my dormitory in Thu Duc City [a dozen kilometers away] tirelessly that day.”
Besides drones for agriculture, MiSmart also focuses on the development and mass production of surveillance drones used for fire prevention, emergency rescue, natural disaster management, natural resource protection, and more.
Since MiSmart has its own technology that can churn out batteries at a much lower price, the company plans to lease its batteries in the future.
The firm’s recent achievements include working with the Department of Plant Protection under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Ministry of Information and Communications to develop an app that addresses plant diseases.
“The app has been approved by the Ministry of Information and Communications as an app to be used under the strategy of digital transformation of the agricultural sector in 2022,” Toan said.
MiSmart has won many awards since its launch in 2019, including the excellence prize at Ho Chi Minh City Artificial Intelligence 2020 and the first prize at Viet Solutions 2020 — a digital transformation competition in Vietnam.
In 2021, MiSmart was one of five startups that won prizes at the ‘AI Accelerator Challenge 2021,’ a contest to support Vietnam’s economic recovery from the COVID -19 pandemic and drive the development of a vibrant AI startup environment.
In addition, the company has commanded the attention of some large hedge funds and is enabling mass production by selling hundreds of products to other entrepreneurs.
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