[Interview] Dexter Tangocci, Co-Founder, Integrated Aerial Systems, South Africa
Dexter Tangocci co-founded Integrated Aerial Systems (IAS) in 2016 and the company since built up a strong presence in the agriculture sector. Recognized in 2021 by the United Nations as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world, IAS is one of only three licensed crop spraying operators in South Africa.
Could you introduce your company?
IAS is a fully licensed drone service provider based in Cape Town South Africa. We leverage drone technology primarily in the agriculture sector to improve farming practices. Our vision is to use drone technology to build a more efficient and sustainable future.
Were there particular circumstances in your community that led you to start your agri-food business and what support, if any, did you receive from local government or your community?
Initially we were positioned as a drone company focused on collecting health data for tree crops for a large technology company, Aerobotics, and we became passionate about developing methodologies that would allow us to collect the best data at scale while improving the speed of delivery. Using the knowledge we obtained from mapping more than 50000ha of different crops we saw an opportunity to use this information to help improve the crop spraying on farms as we began to realise that traditional methods were often imprecise, expensive and harmful to the surrounding environment. It became clear to us that using drones to conduct targeted crop spraying based on precise mapping information would enable us to offer a true agriculture precision service from identifying issues, providing pinpoint accuracy and then using this information to inform spraying. This is something we knew could make a huge difference to the improvement of farming practices. Our objective then was to become a fully licensed operator that could provide aerial spraying by drone to farmers across South Africa. After another lengthy approvals process, we became the 2nd legal operator for crop spraying by drone in South Africa. As of this year we have managed to spray more than 1700ha of crops by drone which has been very well received by the farming community.
As yet we have not received any support from local or national government. We are self-funded and have had to achieve product-market fit in order to fund continuing operations.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic directly or indirectly impacted your business operations?
Our operations were suspended while under South Africa’s strict lockdown in March 2020, but for the most part the agriculture industry continued to operate and we were back up and running after the hard-lockdown lifted in South Africa. One of the benefits we experienced is the rapid wide-spread acceptance of digitally signed documents between us and the South African Civil Aviation Authority which previously was heavily paper-based. This has made our compliance with aviation regulations much more efficient. In addition, being able to meet with more clients than before over video calls is a big help – a lot of our clients before would have requested face to face meetings which is time consuming and logistically challenging especially with most of our clients being based far out of Cape Town in the agriculture regions.
What other challenges have you faced in your journey and how have you worked to overcome these?
When we started IAS, we knew very little about the aviation industry and in particular drone industry. It took many months of work and a deep dive into industry research and a lot of time and effort obtaining the necessary qualifications before we could start conceptualising our vision for IAS and our place in the industry. This excludes the time spent on becoming well versed in the agriculture industry and how to address specific problems and drive efficiency in the industry. It took us over two years to receive regulatory approval to operate which was particularly challenging for us as a small business with no investor funding. We continue to overcome the issue of funding through continuously optimising our service offering to ensure best product-market fit for the agriculture industry.
Describe what it means for your agri-food enterprise to be selected by the UN as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world?
It’s a great honour. We have entered several competitions, including the African Drone Forum Business Challenge and the 2020 Gogettaz Agripreneurship competition where we made it to the finals, but this is the first time we have been chosen as a winner. As agritech entreprenuers, it’s great to receive international recognition for the business we built to serve the agriculture industry and by extension, the global food system.
What is your vision for 2022 and beyond in delivering a more nourishing, sustainable, equitable and resilient food system?
By 2030, we believe aerial data analytics and drone crop spraying will be widely integrated into the farming process and IAS is positioning itself to be the largest drone service provider for farming on the African continent. Our actionable data and targeting crop spraying rolled out on a large scale will empower smallholder farmers, create gainful employment opportunities, improve quality of crops at harvest and help reduce the environmental impact of farming on the environment. In anticipation of our expansion and requirement for trained personnel, we are working towards a partnership with the Agriculture Sector Education Training Authority (AgriSeta) which will support us in our aim to integrate youth, women and previously disadvantaged people into our organisation.
What further support does your business and others like you need to create good and sustainable food for all?
We require strategic partners to help us take advantage of our unique position in the market, being one of only 3 licensed crop spraying operators in South Africa. We are aiming to partner with large players in the agriculture industry in Africa such as farming co-operatives, chemical companies, training institutions and governments to achieve our vision of becoming the largest drone service provider for the agriculture sector on the African continent. Further, we call on private industry and government to invest in agriculture SMEs and startups, subsidise us, incentivise us and make an effort to de-risk access to capital for us - we are the ones taking risks, pushing the drive for environmentally friendly business.
What key advice would you give to others that would like to follow your example to become passionate, values-driven, innovative food entrepreneurs?
Identify a need in the market to solve a problem that will benefit the global food systems as far as possible. If you are passionate about solving the problem and work to build your business around that, the inevitable hard work you will need to put in to grow your business will be worth it. Success doesn’t happen overnight so be prepared to deal with tough times and setbacks, even in the long run.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel strongly about in providing Good Food For All?
The world is producing food at an unattainable cost to the environment - negative impacts associated with the way the current food system operates are at least $6 trillion. The $6 trillion costs are equivalent to over 7 percent current global economic output each year – a bill that is unacceptably high for $8 trillion worth of food. We need to do everything we can to reduce this cost on the global environment, from sustainable production to sustainable consumption. We see our role in contributing to solving part of this problem by using less resources to create more output.
This interview is part of a series covering the winners of the United Nations Global Best Small Business Contest of Good Food for All.