A web-based platform for farmers to hire out equipment, and a 14-year-old's ambitions to provide broadband to isolated rural communities, are two of four projects to win backing from the Rural Innovation Lab (RIL).

At a ceremony in the Grand Hall at Parliament House last week, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor also congratulated the two other successful bids – AbacusBio's plan to develop a calculator for farmers to estimate greenhouse gas emissions on-farm, and development of a Māori Agribusiness Collective that would provide a conduit for connection and agribusiness knowledge sharing by Māori landowners in Manawatu and Whanganui.

Alex Stewart, 14, said he recognised a business opportunity when he heard that one of the big telcos had quoted over $150,000 to bring high speed internet services to a small community near Whanganui.

READ MORE: Whanganui teen Alex Stewart sets up business to help isolated communities access wireless internet

Advertisement

The government was investing more than $1 billion to roll out connectivity to rural areas "but the ISPs allocated this money are still only extending their infrastructure to areas with the highest levels of profitability," said Stewart.

"That means small clusters of farms down the end of a valley won't get ready access to fast, reliable and most importantly affordable internet and cell, due to the fact it could take many years for the ISPs to recoup their initial investment."

After successfully getting internet wirelessly from a farmhouse to a milkshed, Stewart teamed with Palmerston North-based Digital Cloud and has launched his own ISP, Wombat NET.

He is looking to sign up an initial batch of clients in the Turakina area and put in place his first substantial infrastructure.

Users can be about 20km from a transmitter so long as there was line of sight.

Stewart said his business mentor warned him as a teenager with a business idea he'd face negativity and scepticism "but among all those no's you'll find someone who believes in you and your project".

Wombat NET entrepreneur Alex Stewart, left, is congratulated by Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Rural Innovation Lab chairman Mat Hocken at Parliament House. Photo / Supplied
Wombat NET entrepreneur Alex Stewart, left, is congratulated by Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and Rural Innovation Lab chairman Mat Hocken at Parliament House. Photo / Supplied

That someone was RIL, which picked his idea and those of the three others from more than 50 pitches for the package of project facilitation, mentoring and networking from RIL's leading farmers and growers, as well as RIL partners The Factory, Massey University, Microsoft and the Ecentre.

Also thrilled to be selected were Scott Cameron and Alexandra Tully. Scott said experience growing up on his parents' small dairy farm in Taranaki showed him the hassles around sourcing equipment that a farmer might only need once or twice.

Advertisement

"Where we lived, you'd have to drive an hour to New Plymouth to pick it up. By the time you got back you'd lost the time you needed to complete the task. You might not be able to return it because the place is closed on a Sunday, so you're paying for three days' of hire…"

Alexandra Tully and Scott Cameron have come up with an on-line platform for farmer-to-farmer equipment rentals. Photo / Supplied
Alexandra Tully and Scott Cameron have come up with an on-line platform for farmer-to-farmer equipment rentals. Photo / Supplied

The pair have developed a peer-to-peer lending platform in the style of Air BnB. A farmer or machinery owner lists the item at their desired price, generating income from unused gear. Both parties are covered by an insurance policy that comes with Scott and Alexandra's small commission.

Scott said their platform, which will be launched in six to eight weeks' time, will help farmers locate the equipment they need closest to where their farm is, at lower cost.

Just for example, a dairy farmer might be looking to diversify - perhaps putting in a paddock of potatoes to see how it goes. If they can find someone relatively close with the gear they need, "the risk and cost is less," he said.

The Manawatu-based Rural Innovation Lab, which is supported by Federated Farmers among others, was launched just over six months ago. Its chairman, dairy farmer Mat Hocken, said the idea was to bring farmers and growers across sectors together to share the challenges and problems they face, "and bring in partners who share our values".

The ambition was to be the smartest, most innovative and sustainable food producers in the world, he said.

As well as the four selected projects, RIL has 80 third-year Massey University students working on a further 10 initiatives.