Tauranga Welcomes You!

Zulfikar Hossain | AI & Robotics Expert Joins PlantTech Team

Zulfikar Hossain

Zulfikar Hossain wasn’t surprised when he got a LinkedIn message from a recruiter in Tauranga asking him to consider employment with an innovative horticultural research and development organization called PlantTech.  With a PhD in Articifical Intelligence for robotics, Zulfi was used to be being approached by the commercial sector. His particular skill set was rare in New Zealand and highly sought after.

Up until now, he had always said no to these commercial pitches, but the PlantTech proposition was compelling.  Having grown up in a farming family in Bangladesh, PlantTech’s mission of using AI technology to tackle horticultural and agricultural challenges appealed to him. His hope had always been that his research would be partnered with industry and PlantTech offered him the opportunity to do that seamlessly. He and his wife Kona moved from Auckland to Tauranga in July 2019.

This is his story.

Zulfi, where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town called Mujibnagar in the Meherpur district of Bangladesh. It’s a historical place – the very first government of Bangladesh was formed there on April 10th, 1971, which then led to the Bangladesh Liberation War. The majority of the population is involved in agriculture. My family is farmers, my father and his father before him. Whenever I visit there I spend some time on the family farm to enjoy nature.

What put you on a path towards engineering instead of farming?

When I was a child I used to dismantle my toys and electronic devices. I was curious to know how they worked and I wished that I could make such things! I remember dismantling a small radio and being fascinated by what I found inside.

As I grew up I learned that if I studied engineering I would learn how to make the things I loved pulling apart.  That is what lay behind my decision to study electronics engineering.

Can you tell us your career story?

After receiving a degree in electronics and communication engineering from the Khulan University of Engineering and Technology, I started my career as a lecturer in the same institute and taught for about three years. In 2010, I moved to New Zealand. I attended the Auckland University of Technology where I completed my PhD in Artificial Intelligence for Robotics and developed a robot mapping algorithm based on a theory of cognitive mapping. Right after my PhD research, I again took up an academic role as a lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology, while extending my knowledge in the fields of sensor-based autonomous systems and computer vision.

What had drawn you to New Zealand?

When Bangladesh went into the cricket World Cup in 1999 for the first time, I started following cricket and learning more about New Zealand. I found out that New Zealand is a beautiful country and I also found out that it’s quite peaceful and safe too. This perception is pretty common in our country. After my graduation, I started looking for PhD opportunities in New Zealand and Australia. When I received an offer letter with a full scholarship from AUT to do research in the field of AI and robotics, I didn’t have to think twice.

How did the PlantTech role end up on your radar?

I first came to know about PlantTech from Natalie Thompson from Ryan + Alexander Consultancy, who was recruiting for PlantTech. After doing some research, I believed that it would be a great opportunity for me. I wanted to be more practically involved in the agriculture industry. In fact, when I started working at the Manukau Institute of Technology I hoped to get involved in industry research to support current challenges.

However, with the demands of lecturing, I could not manage as many opportunities as I would have liked. PlantTech offered research and industry involvement in one organization. I was able to continue my research, working on real-world problems and supporting the agriculture and horticulture industry.  It was like coming full circle.

What is your role at PlantTech? 

As a research scientist, my role is to bring innovative solutions to the table using technologies from the field of computer vision, robotics, and AI in general. Currently, we are working on few projects such as object detection and tracking-based digital crop counting, crop monitoring, and estimation from the ground and aerial imagery. We are also working to develop a model for early disease detection and growth monitoring based on multi-sensory data.

PlantTech team is working collaboratively with its shareholder companies and producing state-of-the-art systems to strengthen the horticulture industry for the challenges we are facing. We go as a team to meet our clients who are the field experts. We learn about real problems from them and then we think about how can we solve them. I feel excited by how much scope it is for us to contribute.

What do you find meaningful about what you do?

It is estimated that the world’s population will increase by 2 billion and the food demand will increase anywhere between 60% to 98% by 2050. However, the number of people willing to work in the field is decreasing, and cultivating land is decreasing in some countries like Bangladesh because the land is being used to meet other demands. Climate change is also playing a role to change the shape of agriculture. Pesticides are being used more to meet the food demand. PlantTech is working to meet these challenges in the horticulture industry by developing AI innovations. I feel happy to be part of this journey.

How would you describe the company culture at Plant-Tech?

Our research team has experience in precision agriculture, astronomy, bioinformatics, ML/AL, and robotics. Culturally, we are diverse too and PlantTech values this diversity, which has created a friendly and engaging work environment. From a research point of view, our approach is to tackle challenges by looking from different perspectives. Personally, I believe it is the way forward. I think this way our solutions will be more advanced and effective.

What would you say to international technology professionals who are considering moving to Tauranga?

Tauranga is a smaller city compared to other tech hubs in the world, but it is rapidly growing. Most importantly, there are lots of opportunities to get involved. My message to my fellow tech professionals: if you like friendly and considerate workplaces if you won’t use your expertise to solve problems for the community and if you love great beaches, then Tauranga is your destination.

How have you settled into life in Tauranga?

My wife recently moved to New Zealand after finishing her degree in Accounting from Bangladesh. She hasn’t started working yet, which made our move to Tauranga easier. However, finding suitable accommodation was not easy. Tauranga is growing and there is a huge demand for housing. After some viewings, fortunately, we found a place very close to Mt Manuganui beach. We love spending time on the beach and attending events there. We also roam around Tauranga and enjoy the beautiful landscape this city is surrounded by.

What has moving to Tauranga meant:

For your career? I have the chance to apply my skills and experiences to solve real-world problems and to learn state-of-the-art technologies,  especially in the field of AI, which can be applied in agriculture. I get to engage with shareholders to scope out projects and to engage with interdisciplinary researchers to produce highly efficient solutions. I believe it is a huge opportunity for me to take my career further.

For your well-being? I love to do research, but in my academic life, it was very hard to organize time for research because of my teaching work. Now, I am doing specialist research in my favorite field. As a result, I am getting more time to increase my depth of knowledge. I am also getting more time to organize my life. So, it is working very well from all aspects.

For your relationships?  Since our marriage, my wife has moved with me from Bangladesh to Auckland and now to Tauranga. Finally, she feels she is settled. She started going to school and will look for a job soon. But it will be more enjoyable for us if we can get our parents here. Hopefully, they will be able to visit us very soon.


Ready for a Change?

PlantTech is a key company in Tauranga’s growing agri-tech sector.

“Strong growth in Tauranga has led to significant skills shortages in our AGRI-TECH sector. Key companies want to connect with Kiwi expats, migrants, and tech-professionals from within New Zealand with relevant expertise.” ~ Nigel Tutt, Priority One CEO



Thinking of moving to Tauranga someday?

Take the first steps now.

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