Soil science: New apps close the gap in farmer knowledge

A mobile app is providing Kenyan farmers with information on their farm’s soil composition and weather forecasts within minutes. With almost real-time data on soil type, fertiliser requirements and predicted rainfall, smallholders are reducing environmental damage and boosting their climate resilience.

A handheld soil scanning device in Kenya is enabling over 2,900 farmers to accurately determine soil properties and nutrient requirements © SoilCares

Farmers in Kenya are adopting a new mobile application that enables them to understand the suitability of their soil for various crops, which minimises heavy annual losses associated with inadequate knowledge of soil composition. The app, known as LandInfo, was introduced in Kenya in 2015 by the African Technology Policies Network and provides farmers with a one stop repository of information about soil types and appropriate crops. The application is freely available to download onto smartphones, and also offers up-to-date information on climate patterns to build resilience against harsh climatic shifts.

The LandInfo network, which works in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture and CTA, allows users to instantaneously access and capture point specific data about soil types and climatic factors, including temperature, rainfall, soil water capacity and aridity. Farmers are able to interpret the information in the context of local conditions for specific purposes, such as crop selection, land use management and climate resilience.

Edith Mosop, a farmer and extension officer based in Nakuru county in Kenya’s Rift Valley says the LandInfo app enables farmers to better plan with regards to crop cultivation. “The innovation… empowers farmers to adapt to climate change. This is because they access information on weather patterns and make informed decisions,” Mosop explains. Patrick Ng’ang’a, a farmer based in Meru county, central Kenya, notes that he has been able to ascertain the most timely period to plant and achieve good harvests during both short and long rainy seasons. “Accurate weather forecasts have enabled me to select ideal crops for the two seasons annually,” says Ng’ang’a, who cultivates cereals and legumes.

Daniel Kobia, also a Meru farmer, received training on the use of the app in 2016 and says it has enabled him to determine which crops to plant during different seasons and which part of his 2 ha farm to grow them on. Through the information accessed via LandInfo, he has identified sorghum and millet as ideal crops instead of maize and beans, whose productivity had been steadily declining. With the new crops, Kobia’s yields have almost doubled, and he urges others to utilise the app, “Our economy is agriculture based yet we face food insecurity. Adopting such an innovation can reduce poverty and ensure adequate food,” he enthuses.

As part of a SoilCares Scanning for Success project, a separate tool that provides practical soil information to users within 10 minutes has been distributed to over 2,900 smallholder farmers in Kenya. The handheld device connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and generates a report about the soil’s status and nutrient needs. The scanner uses near-infrared sensors and connects to the SoilCares Global Soil Database to accurately determine soil properties such as pH level, organic matter and NPK content. The device allows farmers to apply the exact type and amount of fertiliser that their soil needs, leading to improved yields, lower fertiliser costs and reduced environmental damage. The project also provides training on soil sampling, fertiliser use and soil fertility. “We believe that closing the food gap begins with closing the knowledge gap. That is why we have developed a series of training materials [in the form of booklets] on soil testing, soil sampling, applying fertiliser, soil fertility and introduction to soil science. We hope these materials will build the capacity of our partners and help them in sharing the information with farmers,” states Christy van Beek, director of the SoilCares Foundation.

Justus Wanzala

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.