Chinese e-commerce platform Pinduoduo wants A.I. to grow our food

Pinduoduo, the Chinese e-commerce retailer that sells everything from home electronics to farming goods, is hoping to shift China’s food production towards smart ways of growing and distributing crops.

People bought 136.4 billion yuan ($20.7 billion) worth of food products via Pinduoduo in 2019. The company works directly with farmers via its Duo Duo Farm initiative, which it says helps them become more profitable and sell direct to consumers.

“We’re giving the farmers a tech toolbox so they can actually take the guesswork out of the planting and reap the benefits of technology. You know (the) Chinese agriculture (working) population is expected to decline,” Pinduoduo’s Senior Vice President of Strategy and Legal, Andre Zhu, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.

“That’s why we think smart agriculture with less human involvement is really the way going forward.”

As well as developing an analytics system for agriculture and investing in tech that can detect contaminates in food, it is also running a competition: to see whether human teams or artificial intelligence (AI) are more efficient at growing strawberries. The company organized the competition with the China Agricultural University pitting traditional farming methods against AI models. Earlier this month it said in a press release the AI teams had produced 175% more fruit by weight.

Pomegranates grown in Huili County, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, Sept. 18, 2020. Sisters He Shuang and He Qian sold four million kilograms of pomegranates from August to November 2019 through the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo.

Jian Hongjing | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

“What we really have seen is that AI has become a supplemental and powerful tool in helping the farmers … I think the farmers are reluctant to pay for the technologies, but what we’re hoping this smart agriculture competition can do is to demonstrate these technologies can really help to improve their livelihood and productivity,” Zhu told CNBC.

Food supply chains have held up in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, but farmers need more support to help improve productivity and feed the world, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

During the pandemic, Pinduoduo launched its Duo Duo Maicai shopping service so people could order food online and collect it the next day, rather than having to buy in person at a market.

“We’ve seen that many households started to use online shopping for groceries during pandemic lockdowns, but that demand for online groceries actually continued to surge even after the lockdowns are lifted so we see this trend as something potentially very big,” Zhu said.

Pinduoduo went public in 2018, raising $1.63 billion. It now has 643.3 million monthly active users.