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Kenyan farmers optimise water use with mobile phones

Smart-tech and innovation

Smallholders are regulating their water supply using solar-powered sensors linked to drip irrigation systems and their mobile phones

© Illuminum Greenhouses

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Smart greenhouses

Remote monitoring of greenhouses is allowing Kenyan smallholders to irrigate their crops from afar and improve their quality of life.

Locally-built greenhouses and solar-powered sensors linked to a drip irrigation system are enabling Kenyan farmers to efficiently manage water use on their crops. The sensors, which are linked to farmers’ mobile phones via SMS to regulate the water supply channelled through drip lines, are also used to monitor temperature, humidity and soil moisture in the greenhouse. The technology is reducing the labour required for manual irrigation and increasing crop yields. Nairobi-based Illuminum Greenhouses is the company behind the innovation and, since 2014, the agri-tech firm has built 1,200 greenhouses across East Africa with 5,500 smallholder farmers using the technology.

The use of locally built greenhouse technology in Kenya is helping to preserve crops and boost farmer incomes

The use of locally built greenhouse technology in Kenya is helping to preserve crops and boost farmer incomes

© Illuminum Greenhouses

Wooden and metal greenhouses constructed by the company are also helping to reduce the risk of farmers’ crops succumbing to pests and disease when grown without cover, and are enabling farmers to improve their productivity. “Greenhouses allow farmers to grow hybrid seeds (capsicum, cucumbers and tomatoes) that have a longer harvest period and up to four times greater yield compared to open field seeds. This massive increase in yield over a small growing area with less risk exposure to pests and diseases results in increased revenue to the farmer,” explains Taita Ngetich, cofounder and chief of operations for Illuminum Greenhouses.

“The average cost of an 8 m by 30 m metallic greenhouse fully equipped with all drip technologies, installation and greenhouse farming training costs US$4,500 [€4,000], while the average income of smallholder farmers per annum is about US$2,000 [~€1,800],” says Ngetich. To make the structures affordable and avoid paying the total cost upfront, the company has created an asset finance mechanism – taking the constructed greenhouse and the crops grown as security. “In this way, farmers pay up to 20% of the total value instead of the entire amount and we structure the repayment to match with their harvesting cycles,” explains Ngetich. “We have proven this works over the year 2017 and 2018, where we constructed greenhouses for farmers and only requested 10% deposit and recouped the balance over the harvesting season impacting over 345 farmers. We now hope to bring on board financial institutions and government to scale this method.”

Recognising the need to continuously innovate and expand what the company offers to farmers, they have gone beyond USSD messaging to develop an updated version of the irrigation technology that can be accessed via newer phone models. “We have started building an online analytics interface accessible via smartphone that will allow provide actionable insights on their field conditions, water usage, warning indicators, diagnostics and other useful information.”

In addition, to bridge the funding gap due to farmers’ lack of financial footprint that makes it difficult for lending partners to credit score them, Ngetich is now looking to develop a new credit-scoring approach using the Illuminum technology. “Farmers may not have financial footprints, but they have data from our sensors which lending partners can use to credit score these farmers. By sharing data on irrigation patterns, yield harvested per season, price per kilo of produce harvested, weather historical patterns and farming records, we believe we can have a credit score,” he says.

Illuminum Greenhouses were one of four winners of the CTA Agrihack 2018 competition – which supports young entrepreneurs in ICTs for agriculture – who each received a prize of €7,500. “The system will capitalise on Kenya’s strong smartphone adoption, as 83% of the country’s internet penetration was through smartphones in 2017. This has been made possible by CTA who is funding this development and will allow farmers to access big data and machine-learning technologies,” states Ngetich. 

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