Innovation: Is the Internet of Things the future of farming?

In ACP countries, the use of smart ‘connected’ devices in agriculture is still at an experimental stage. Yet new projects are emerging, and global trends show how this new technology offers vital development opportunities.

IoT applications can improve farmers’ decision-making with more and accurate data © Aurora Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

The Internet of Things (IoT) – a term used to describe the connection of devices to the internet – is still very much in its infancy in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. This is particularly true in the agriculture sector and rural areas, where the uptake of ICTs tends to progress at a much slower pace than other sectors. Yet the evidence points to a major trend elsewhere in the world, especially in the European Union (EU) and, to an even greater extent, in the US. In a recent article, European electricity giant Schneider Electric reported that, “Over the last 20 years, more than 3 billion people have got connected via their computers, tablets and smart phones. Over the next 5 years, 50 billion devices – or ‘things’ – will become internet-enabled and prolific sharers of data.”

According to Ken Lohento, CTA’s ICT Programme Coordinator, IoT is still in an ‘experimental phase’ in ACP countries. But, he argues, the new technology looks set to boom in this part of the world too. “Connections originating from connected objects have increased by more than 30% year-on-year in Africa since 2015,” said Thomas Chalumeau, chief strategy and development officer for Orange Middle East & Africa, in a Q&A published in 2017. “At Orange, we estimate that there’s the potential to market more than 12 million machine-to-machine SIM cards by 2020. These SIM cards transfer data from electronic objects [i.e. sensors] to computer servers or between themselves... In agriculture, remote mobile sensors can monitor crop growth, soil moisture and water levels. Sensors fitted to farm equipment can help farmers manage their vehicles, reduce the time they use tractors and reduce fuel consumption. In time, farmers will rely on connected drones or tractors to monitor water quality, identify the optimal harvest date and so on.”

Slow uptake in the rural world

Rolling out IoT across the agriculture sector will take time. “I don’t think we’re going to experience the kind of disruptive revolution we’ve seen with mobile phones in Africa,” says Lohento. “Sociological, technological and financial factors mean that technology uptake tends to be slow in agriculture. Living in rural areas brings its own set of problems, especially for smallholder farmers. Electricity and telecommunications coverage is patchy, and people have low purchasing power. Many smallholder farmers can barely make ends meet and don’t have the money to invest in technology like this. The mobile phone revolution caught on much faster because the technology is cheap.”

Lohento also believes that ICT – and especially IoT – uptake will not happen evenly across the continent, with the most economically advanced countries like South Africa getting their hands on the technology first. In early 2017, for example, mobile network operator Vodafone teamed up with German development agency, GIZ, and consulting firm Manstrat Agricultural Intelligence to invest €1.4 million in ‘Connected Farmer’ – a cloud-based web and mobile software solution that will link thousands of smallholder farmers to the agriculture value chain, which will enable access to information, services and markets.

Major advances have also been made – many experimental in nature – in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, Senegal. One of the flagship initiatives is WAZI-UP, an EU-funded programme launched in early 2016 and coordinated by Italian firm Create-Net. The consortium involves 12 partners in total, from four African countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal and Togo) and four European countries (France, Germany, Italy and Portugal). Two tilapia and catfish aquaculture farms in Ghana – Lazarus Farms and Kumah Farms, small and large outfits respectively – are now connected to the platform, where they can get real-time water quality data and advice on what steps to take. Water quality directly affects feeding efficiency, growth rates, fish health and survival and, consequently, production yields and a farmer’s profits. As a result of the initiative, both farms have seen fish losses decline and their profits increase.

Kenya is setting the pace in Africa when it comes to IoT uptake. UjuziKilimo is one company that uses soil sensors and data analytics to send targeted advice to farmers via text message (see Spore, Young people: energising African agriculture). Illuminum Greenhouses, meanwhile, builds greenhouses equipped with solar-powered sensors to monitor and maintain optimal crop growth conditions. The company also supplies drip irrigation kits that deliver the precise quantity of water that a plant requires at any given time. Elsewhere, IBM Research has launched EZ-Farm, a remote monitoring solution where sensors are placed on farms to capture data on water tank levels, soil moisture and rates of photosynthesis. “We [...] securely stream it to the IBM IoT Foundation,” says Dr Kala Fleming, water, agriculture and health manager, IBM Research Africa. “There, an analytics engine within IBM Bluemix™ measures how the plants are doing and identifies patterns of water usage, then insights are provided back to the farmers via an app on a tablet or smart phone.”

A mixed picture across sectors

Lohento believes that IoT uptake is likely to be faster in export sectors, where farmers are more exposed – and more open – to new technologies than subsistence farmers. Livestock farmers are also streets ahead on the technology front. “IoT technologies are already widely used in the livestock sector,” he explains. “Farmers are using radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to work out when to accelerate gestation or decide what feed the animal needs at a given point in time.” Other parts of Africa’s agriculture sector will need to follow suit.

 

RFID: the forerunner of IoT

RFID chips, which use electromagnetic fields to track and identify tags attached to objects, have been a mainstay of African livestock farming for many years. The technology is deployed with varying degrees of complexity – in some cases akin to the IoT model. Senegal, for example, launched a horse and donkey chip identification system back in 2010. By 2017 there were 27,000 animals fitted with a chip. In Nigeria, South African telecommunications network operator MTN launched a cattle chipping project in 2016 to identify and trace animals and open up export opportunities.

In Kenya, RFID deployment hit a new milestone in August 2017 when the US firm RippleNami secured backing from Kenya’s central bank and veterinary association to deliver a real-time livestock mapping solution – a blockchain visualisation platform that uses big data (for more information on blockchain see Spore, Digital innovation: blockchain’s disruptive potential in ACP value chains). “The ability to geographically visualise the registration of individual animals, farms, holdings, premises and herds enables us to identify risk areas, create disease-free zones and assure livestock traceability for trade and food safety,” says Dr Kahariri Samuel, national chairman of the Kenya Veterinary Association. “And the collateralisation of livestock assets will enable farmers to achieve higher prices for their livestock and to secure loans for continued growth.”

Bénédicte Châtel

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.