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Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi based startup that raised $ 6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields, and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture Start

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollack

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $ 6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech, and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say “wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration in his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience at Startup Battlefield in Africa in Lagos in 2018.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture

“We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer, and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics, or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potential partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”


TechCrunch

GM has a “big team” working on an advanced version of its hands-free driving assistance system Super Cruise that will expand its capability beyond highways and apply it to city streets, the automaker’s vice president of global product development Doug Parks said Tuesday.

GM is also continuing to improve its existing Super Cruise product, Parks said during a webcasted interview at Citi’s 2020 Car of the Future Symposium.

“As we continue to ratchet up Super Cruise, we continue to add capability and not just highway roads,” Parks said, adding that a separate team is working on the hands-free city driving product known internally as “Ultra Cruise.”

“We’re trying to take that same capability off the highway,” he said. “Ultra cruise would be all of the Super Cruise plus the neighborhoods, city streets and subdivisions. So Ultra Cruise’s domain would be  essentially all driving, all the time.”

Parks was quick to add that this would not be autonomous driving. Advanced driving assistance systems have become more capable, but they still require a human driver to take control and to be paying attention.

“What we’re not saying is that Ultra Cruise will be fully autonomous 100% of the time, although that could be one of the end games,” Parks said.

Parks didn’t provide a timeline for when Ultra Cruise might be available. A GM spokesperson said in a statement after his interview that the company continues to expand its hands-free driver assistance system technology across its vehicle portfolio and has “teams looking at how we can expand the capabilities to more scenarios.”

GM said it “does not have a name or anything specific to announce today, but stay tuned.”

This new Ultra Cruise feature would put it in competition with Tesla’s Autopilot advanced driving system, which is largely viewed as the most capable on the market today. Tesla’s “full self-driving” package, a more capable version of Autopilot, can now identify stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows the car to a stop on approach. This feature is still considered to be in beta.

GM’s Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS,  cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

GM has taken a slower approach to Super Cruise compared to Tesla’s method of rolling out software updates that gives early access to some owners to test the improved features. When GM launched Super Cruise in 2017, it was only available in one Cadillac model — the full-size CT6 sedan — and restricted to divided highways. That began to change in 2019 when GM announced plans to expand where Super Cruise would be available.

GM’s new digital vehicle platform, which provides more electrical bandwidth and data processing power, enabled engineers to add to Super Cruise’s capabilities. In January, GM added a feature to Super Cruise that automated lane changes for drivers of certain Cadillac models, including the upcoming 2021 Escalade.

This enhanced version of Super Cruise includes better steering and speed control. The improved version will be introduced starting with the 2021 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 sedans, followed by the new 2021 Cadillac Escalade. The vehicles are expected to become available in the second half of 2020.


TechCrunch

SoftBank Group Corp. is currently seeking buyers for about $ 20 billion of its shares in T-Mobile US, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. If the proposed sale goes through, its proceeds could help offset SoftBank’s heavy investment losses over the past year.

According to its first-quarter earnings report yesterday, SoftBank’s Vision Fund lost $ 17.4 billion in value for the year ended March 31, obliterating the $ 12.8 billion gain the fund recorded a year ago. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to sell up to $ 41 billion of its assets to increase its share buyback program.

T-Mobile’s merger with SoftBank-controlled Sprint, which was officially completed last month, gave SoftBank ownership of about 25% of T-Mobile’s shares.

Bloomberg reports that under the proposed deal, which could be announced this week, SoftBank would sell part of its stake to Deutsche Telekom AG, T-Mobile’s parent company. Deutsche Telekom currently owns about 44% of T-Mobile’s shares, but would achieve majority ownership if the deal with SoftBank goes through. Softbank would then sell some of its remaining stake to other investors in a secondary offering.

T-Mobile is the United States’ third-largest wireless carrier, after AT&T and Verizon Wireless*, and it has a current market capitalization of about $ 126 billion, which means SoftBank’s stake is worth about $ 31 billion, while Deutsche Telekom’s is about $ 55 billion.

According to the Wall Street Journal, banks including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sach Group are currently seeking investors for the proposed sale.

TechCrunch has contacted SoftBank Group and T-Mobile for comment.

*Disclosure: Verizon is TechCrunch’s parent company.


TechCrunch

Last week, Mount Sinai showcased how it’s started using Nest devices to monitor patients remotely. Today, Google’s showing off how the Nest Hub Max is helping retirement home residents feel a little less isolated amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

To help matters along, the company is currently testing a simplified interface to make the smart screen easier to operate for less tech savvy residents. Google is currently piloting the device’s use in by handing units out to people at Merrill Gardens in Washington State. They’ll be the first to get a crack at the new UI.

Updates include additional “What can you do” cards serving as shortcuts to common requests like alarms, weather and music. Recipients will also get their devices preloaded with contacts for video calls — likely the primary use, as homes across the country institute social distancing.

“It’s important for seniors’ mental and emotional health to stay connected, and social isolation during this quarantine makes doing that especially hard,” Google’s Molly McHugh-Johnson says in a post. “As I learned with my grandma, Nest Hub Max and Duo video calling can help keep us ‘together’ while we’re apart.”

Retirement and nursing homes have been disproportionately impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. The elderly community in general has been hard hit by the virus, with a mortality rate of three to 11% for ages 65 to 84 and 10 to 27% for ages 85 and up. For that reason it’s become particularly important for communities to enact strong social distancing measures.


TechCrunch

Following the U.S. government’s announcement that would further thwart Huawei’s chip-making capability, the Chinese telecoms equipment giant condemned the new ruling for being “arbitrary and pernicious.”

“Huawei categorically opposes the amendments made by the U.S. Department of Commerce to its foreign direct product rule that target Huawei specifically,” said Huawei Monday at its annual analyst summit in Shenzhen.

The new curbs, which dropped on Friday, would ban Huawei from using U.S. software and hardware in certain strategic semiconductor processes. This will affect all foundries using U.S. technologies, including those located abroad, some of which are Huawei’s key suppliers.

Earlier on Monday, the Nikkei Asian Review reported citing sources that Taiwanese Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest contract semiconductor that powers many of Huawei’s high-end phones, has stopped taking new orders from Huawei, one of its largest clients. Huawei declined to comment while TSMC said the report was “purely market rumor”.

Decisions from TSMC point to its attempt to strengthen bonds with the U.S. though, as it’s planning a new $ 12 billion advanced chip factory in Arizona with support from the state and the U.S. federal government.

At the Monday conference, Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping admitted that while the firm is able to design some semiconductor parts such as integrated circuits (IC), it remains “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”

“Survival is the keyword for us at present,” he said.

Huawei stated the latest U.S. ban would not only affect its own business in over 170 countries, where it has spent “hundreds of billions of dollars,” but also the wider ecosystem around the world.

“In the long run, [the U.S. ban] will damage the trust and collaboration within the global semiconductor industry which many industries depend on, increasing conflict and loss within these industries.”

Huawei has announced a raft of contingency measures ever since the Trump administration began slapping technology sanctions on it, including one that had cut it off certain Android services from Google.

Huawei said at the summit that it had doubled down on investment in overseas developers in an effort to lure them to its operating system. Some 1.4 million developers have signed up for Huawei Mobile Services or HMS, a 150% jump from 2019. In its search to identify alternatives to Google’s app suite in Europe, it has partnered up with navigation services TomTom and Here, search engine Qwant and news app News UK. 


TechCrunch

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Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

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TechCrunch

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is targeting a liftoff time of 9:14 AM EDT (6:14 AM PDT) today for an Atlas V rockets carrying the Boeing-built X-37B orbital test vehicle on behalf of the U.S. space force, which is an autonomous winged spaceplane that looks a little like a scaled down version of the Space Shuttle .

This is the sixth mission for the X-37B, though it’s the first flown under the U.S. Space Force’s supervision, since the space plane was previously operated by the Air Force before the formation of the new wing of the U.S. armed forces.

The X-37B runs various missions for the U.S., though its specific aims are actually classified. The uncrewed test vehicle spends long periods on orbit circling the Earth while conducting these missions, with its longest mission to date being a record 780 days for its flight that landed on October 27.

This launch was rescheduled from Saturday, due to poor weather conditions, and its delay means that the SpaceX Starlink mission that was scheduled to take off from Kennedy in Florida today is now pushed out to Tuesday, due to a tropical storm that looks to be developing on Monday at its original backup date.


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