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Farming and harvesting with tech

The tech generation doesn’t have to frown upon agriculture anymore

By Kageni Muse

In my attempts at urban farming, I have recently killed three plants. The first I suspect died from exposure to too much sunlight, while my mint and basil dried up because I watered them too erratically. The aloe vera plant may be the only one enjoying my neglect. Now imagine if I had a system that would warn me that plant A needs to move to shade after so many hours in the sun and that moisture levels in plant B are desperately low. Imagine further that at the press of a switch I could water those plants, or an entire farm, controlling just how much water goes in. Or that the system could tell me that the reason my spinach are turning purple on the stems is because they need a certain nutrient that can be acquired through fertilizer C, which is available in agro stores D,E and F and at what prices. I could even be able to order the fertilizer and have it dropped at my farm, ahem, urban rooftop. 

Technological innovations, notes the Food and Agriculture Organisation, have the ability to transform every link in the food chain, from seed to fork. Digital technologies like the Internet, mobile devices, data analytics, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and apps are indeed changing agriculture and the food system as farmers and entrepreneurs seek to boost efficiency, productivity and profit. 

According to a paper published by The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), digital agriculture is all about “ICT and data ecosystems that support the development and delivery of timely, targeted information and services to make farming profitable and sustainable while delivering safe, nutritious and affordable food for all.” 

The tools that enable digital agriculture are many and cross-cutting and reflect a shift towards highly optimized, individualised, realtime, hyper-connected and data-driven management of farm resources. These tools include the cloud, sensors, robots, digital communication tools, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), geographical information systems, yield monitors, precision soil sampling, proximal and remote spectroscopic sensing, unmanned aerial vehicles, auto-steered and guided equipment, radio frequency identification (RFID chips), automated milking and feeding systems and controlled-environment agriculture such as greenhouses and indoor farms.

Below are some ways in which they are being applied in farming:

Robotics and farm machinery automation

If you want to be impressed watch a video of how food can come from farm to plate with minimal human interaction. Laser and camera-guided machines can for example harvest tomatoes in a farm, pack them in crates, take them to a processing unit where they are cleaned, sorted, even processed and canned with minimal human touch. Automation reduces demand for manual labour, improving efficiency and productivity. Robots and machinery are being used in planting, spraying, weeding and harvesting, milking and feeding animals, resulting in higher and faster yields. According to market research publisher ResearchMoz, the robot market in agriculture is expected to grow to USD16 billion/year by 2020.

Drones, remote satellite data and in-situ sensors 

Drones enable farmers to get an overall view of their farm in real time. They are also effective in spraying large farms, applying fertilizer or planning for irrigation as has been shown by tech from firms such as Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. Another firm, SkySquirrel, is using drones to analyze and monitor crop health. Sensors on the other hand can be placed in fields or green houses to allow farmers to view their crops from anywhere and monitor air, water or soil conditions in real-time, allowing changes to be made accordingly. Wearable sensors for livestock can monitor vitals, movement, estrus cycles, and general herd identifying information.  These technologies help improve the accuracy of information and reduce the cost of monitoring crop growth, animal health and quality of land or water. Satellite data which includes images is now being used by governments to track crops being grown by farmers, their acreage and condition or to monitor soil types and quality. Such information can be used to inform policy and programmes in the future. Kenyan startup Ujuzi Kilimo is involved in this type of precision farming where it undertakes soil testing to advise farmers on fertilizers, seeds and specific crop management practices to optimise harvest. 

Fleet tracking and monitoring

Digital and GPS technology are being used to track vehicle movements and fuel consumption, operation tracking as well as for communication with workers. Sensors placed in farm equipment can track the health of the machines and when they need servicing resulting in less downtime.

Weather forecasts 

Nowadays, automated systems provide early accurate warnings in case of drought or extended rainfall or other weather patterns like frost allowing farmers to change schedules or plan interventions to avoid losses.

Agricultural information services

This is a field that is rapidly expanding in Africa, with many startups coming up to provide farmers with information on farm management, climate, markets, prices and locations of seeds and fertilisers. The information is easily availed over the Internet or through mobile phones. M-Farm is an app that offers real-time market prices for crops, matching Kenyan farmers with buyers. M-Shamba uses SMS to provide farmers with customized information on production, harvesting, marketing, credit, weather and climate. NAFIS is an information service developed by the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Programme to enable farmers get extension information simply by calling the service or browsing the NAFIS website. It also displays free market prices providing a relatively accurate picture of prices on the ground. MbeguChoice offers information on the best five kinds of seed varieties to plant depending on an area and altitude. Agrobase is a database with agronomic information on weeds, diseases and pests, including diverse pesticides, herbicides and pesticides details. It Allows farmers to identify pests, insects and diseases early.

Farm management tools

Farm management software allows farmers to improve production and profits by giving them access to environmental conditions and finances. It can provide services such as record keeping and functionalities that monitor production. Some digital tools allow farmers to monitor livestock movements, trading, reporting, forward planning, breeding and feeding. iCow for example is an app that allows farmers to get vital information on animal breeding and feeding through SMS. 

Online communities

Facebook and telegram communities like Urban Farmers and Digital Farmers Kenya are helping to bring likeminded people together to exchange ideas and information on farming. People use these platforms to ask questions, give reviews and even market their produce or inputs. Apps like VetAfrica allow farmers to connect to veterinary and animal health experts to obtain diagnosis and advice on animal treatment.

Financial solutions

Technology is playing a big role in connecting unbanked farmers to credit. Tools such as FarmDrive help connect farmers in Kenya to loans and financial management tools through the mobile phone. A web-based tool like Budget Mkononi is helping young farmers to plan and budget for their farm. Through the tool, users can identify the basic costs and elements required to set up and run their farming enterprise, along with revenue flows and timelines.

Traceability technologies and digital logistics services 

RFID Sensors can be used to track food from the field to the store allowing consumers to know where the food they eat was bought or grown. This has the potential to streamline agri-food supply chains, while also providing trusted information for consumers on allergens or contaminants. Blockchain has the ability to create direct links among participants of the supply chain thereby ensuring farmers are paid fairly and retailers receive the right products. 

Data mining and analytics

Artificial intelligence will be able to take data gained from sensors and convert it to useful information by analysing and forecasting trends that can inform various aspects of agribusiness, from the best breeds for different locations and climates to what products are in high demand.

The writer is a journalist based in Nairobi. Email: kagenimuse@gmail.com

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