Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

Naspers plans to invest a further R300m in local businesses in 2020 through its start-up arm, Naspers Foundry.

Naspers Foundry, which was created in October 2018, is sitting on almost R1.3bn after spending R130m buying SweepSouth, an Uber-style online platform providing on-demand and regular home-cleaning services in 2019, and agritech business Aerobotics.

“We would like to do, probably, another three transactions of about R100m,” Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa, Naspers SA CEO, told Business Day.

“But as you know with these things, particularly under the circumstances that we’re in now with Covid-19, one can’t be too clear on where one is likely to invest,” she said.

On Wednesday, the company announced its R100m investment in agritech business Aerobotics.

Aerobotics is a subscription-based, artificial intelligence (AI) company that provides tools for the agricultural industry to manage crop health and to predict crop yields.

Founded by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer in 2014, the platform gives users data, including tree counts, the identification of missing trees, and the size and health of trees.

Aerobotics has since developed its technology to engineer fruit counts and provide data on fruit size and colour. Farmers can use the information to manage their farms, trees and fruit more efficiently. Aerobotics delivers insights through its proprietary Aeroview platform and mobile app.

Mahanyele-Dabengwa would not be drawn on how much equity Naspers holds in Aerobotics or what types of companies it has its eye on for future investment.

She said Aerobotics was an attractive investment as it helps with ensuring the country’s food security, which is of paramount importance in SA. “The Aerobotics platform provides a positive contribution towards helping to sustain it.” 

The Cape Town-based start-up has a team of about 85 people and 65-million trees under management, with clients in 18 countries, including in the rest of Africa, the US, Spain, and Australia.

Naspers says Aerobotics has an advantage by being one of the first movers with its technology. As a result, the AI machine vision algorithms they use to determine tree issues like pests and diseases operate from a database of millions of trees already surveyed. “This makes the algorithm significantly more accurate than many competitors and able to detect issues far more rapidly,” said the investor.

James Paterson, Aerobotics co-founder and CEO, said: “We have seen great support from commercial-scale farmers and, more recently, crop insurance companies in the US who require accurate tree-level information about their clients.” 

He said Naspers would bring “proven skills in building global technology companies together with the capital required to continue building for, and with, the agricultural industry”.

In recent years, Naspers has grown to become one of the world’s top-10 technology investors, competing with Silicon Valley firms such as Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Globally, Naspers, whose biggest asset is a more than 70% stake in Prosus, Europe’s biggest internet firm, has more than $4bn in cash and a $2.5bn undrawn revolving credit facility to navigate the crash and explore acquisition opportunities.

To take their venture unit forward in SA, Mahanyele-Dabengwa said they had recently hired Fabian Whate, former head of co-investments at South Suez Capital, as head of Naspers Foundry.

gavazam@businesslive.co.za