The Internet of Things: Making Smart Farms in Africa

Enter the Internet of Things, a disruptive technology predicted to change almost every aspect of our lives, from health, education, security, entertainment, business, governance to agriculture in the near future. It could help change lives by raising food production in sub-Sahara region where 95% of arable land relies on rainfall-fed agriculture, and no one could doubt the fact that climate shocks over the last couple of years have worsened yields. The internet, remote sensing technologies and cloud-based data sharing platforms are only beginning to change the way we see and do agriculture.

Call it precision agriculture in IBM's own words; It uses big data and the Internet of Things to provide insights into current and predicted water and soil moisture levels to farmers and water service providers, who then act as necessary to respond to the situation. The information is delivered to end users through apps installed on smartphones and tablets. The EZ Farm is an IBM project, which is on trial in a number of farms in Nairobi, Kenya involves placement of sensors that collect and stream data to IBM’s cloud-based data centers and updates the information every minute. Farms are equipped with water tank sensors, soil moisture sensors and infrared light sensors (to monitor health of plants). The result is high yields and low farming costs.

Empowering the farmer

While many governments have already implemented means of weather predictions based on the recent technologies such as the satellite and remote sensing and are able to put into place crucial response measures mostly in form of advisories and directions to farmers, the next set of challenge still stares at us: how to empower the farmers to react appropriately based on first hand and immediate information.

It appears true revolution will come when such first hand information directly reaches the farmers and helps them implement immediate and necessary measures on their farms other than just waiting for advisories only from governments and agricultural organizations as has always been the case. This is made possible by the Internet of Things.

Precision Agriculture, Courtesy of IBM

Image: Precision Agriculture, Courtesy of IBM

The EZ Farm is an IBM project was particularly designed to help a group of tech-savvy farmers known as "telephone farmers" who dwell in urban areas and only travel in rural areas during the weekends to watch for their farms. It helps them to better manage water resources needed to irrigate farms as well as to monitor crop health. The application has the potential to bring revolution to small scale farmers according to IBM Research - Africa V-P Dr Kamal Bhattacharya.

“Kenya has 15 million small-scale farmers who contribute hugely to the country’s GDP but we are still investing on food security,” said Bhattacharya.

EZ Farm project is also a leading example of how the Internet of Things can help manage water, a resource sometimes so scarce in some parts of the world. Dr. Kala Fleming, Ph.D. Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin who leads the leading the EZ Farm project says he wanted to spend time thinking about how water and natural resources can be harnessed to build communities and describes the success of the project. By putting water into best usage at the farm, availing it when needed, lowering water consumption and wastage, the project helps farmers get the best out of their projects. 

"The idea that we can get people to see how they can improve yields through water management, while also having a younger generation get excited about being involved in the water industry are all things that point to success for me," said Fleming.

More data from diverse sources

It is expected that future farmers will benefit from diverse data collected from as many platforms as possible - from satellite, farm sensors, marketing, internet and cloud, and delivered on a single platform such as a mobile phone application.

Monitoring and taking advantage of data collected by satellite alone can help understand soil moisture content, precipitation, and vegetation health, and help farmers make necessary and timely decisions. The EZ Farm is also hoping to hook up data from the Kenya meteorological department to include information about rainfall patterns and predictions, which will be provided to farmers through the mobile applications. In future, farmers using this IBM technology can expect the sensors to transmit more data about their farms, for instance real time operating status of farm equipment, such as pump failure. This will help save costs further.

The fact that such data is dispersed to clouds such as the IBM Cloud means organizations can also use the Internet of Things technologies to provide advisories and farming education to farmers through mobile platforms according to Flemming.

"Creating a digital network of small-scale farms and water users also provides opportunities for other organizations looking to launch value-added services to generate revenue and increase productivity," Fleming told BBC.

Some projects that deal in farming insurances are already taking advantage of Internet of Things to deliver better services. For instance, using historical satellite data, micro-agricultural insurance scheme ‘SUM Africa’ (Scaling Up Micro-insurance in Africa) based in Mali and Uganda is able to predict yields and compensate farmers who are policy holders if predicted yields fall below a certain level. The compensation is done early enough that farmers can take necessary measures to shield themselves from expected calamities. If those calamities happened, they avoid lengthy calamity assessment procedures that preceded compensation.

SUM Africa; mage courtesy of World Bank

Image: A tomato farmer in Ethiopia sorting out products, Coutesy of World Bank

An Index-Based Livestock Insurance program in Northern Kenya uses satellite images to predict "greenness" of pasture and farmers who take insurance policies can actually get financial compensation if the satellite shows there is little pasture left for the cattle.This money can be used to protect livestock against drought by taking necessary initiatives.

Another case in point is the use of big data and the Internet of Things to empower farmers by giving them immediate and timely access to marketing data, which allows them to take necessary decisions and harness more benefits from their yields. An example is the M-Farm which leverages on internet and text messaging to help Kenyan farmers access market prices for produce, aggregate orders of farm supplies and thus lower the purchase costs, and sell their produce in bulk thereby reducing related marketing costs. Farmers could still link up with mobile-based financial services.

Smartphone applications such as the iCow are also being used to help farmers gain access to educative content such as feeding practices and disease control; record keeping tools; and connecting to buyers. FarmDrive is a simple record-keeping platform that also helps farmers to access credit services while the Short Messaging Service-based WeFarm application helps farmers by troubleshooting their farm problems by sharing information. The MbeguChoice application helps farmers to access better, drought tolerant and variety of seeds from various suppliers.

However, the real modern challenge is the actual number of people owning smartphones especially in the rural areas, which is definitely expected to change in the near future. If the technology benefits the first starter tech-savvy farmers, it might spread.

Cheap sensors, inexpensive remote sensing imaging from satellites, cloud computing, and information sharing via mobile device applications will drive the next phase of data-driven agriculture called Ag 3.0 by Lance Donny, founder of an agricultural technology start-up, OnFarm Systems.

“It’s a totally different world than walking out on the farmland, kicking the dirt and making a decision based on intuition,” said Donny during his presentation in a workshop hosted in San Jose, California by the National Science Foundation and the National Consortium for Data Science.