Texting Greenhouses - second best startup in the world

Image: AFP Saul - 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit (where Illuminum Greenhouses won runner up for Best Startup in the world) President Obama on a panel discussion with Kenyetta.

When texting or SMS (the more widely used term) was first introduced in Kenya, it gained great popularity among mobile subscribers because it was much cheaper than making phone calls. In fact, it was dirt cheap, at KES 1 (USD 0.01) per SMS. That’s what really fueled the texting culture; a culture now finding its way into the agricultural sector through Illuminum Greenhouses - greenhouses that text you when resources are getting low.

The Illuminium Duo

The greenhouses are the brainchild of long-time friends and campus mates Brian Bett and Taita Ng’etich. Their innovation was not initially born out of a desire to help farmers but rather to find a way out of the financial doldrums they found themselves in. After having overspent their pocket money out of excitement of their new-found campus freedom. Today, they have the vision to provide access to affordable modern farming technologies to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Early experiments

Their first stab at farming, in Loitoktok - a town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro - resulted in a failure that would have left anyone ‘running for the hills’. Indeed their four partners at the time (fellow campus students) pulled out after floods wiped out their entire tomato crop.

The duo decided to soldier on, but this time began brainstorming on ways to protect their crops from the whims of Mother Nature.

A seed is planted

The idea of a greenhouse came to mind but they quickly found that the cost of setting one up was too steep for their campus wallets to handle - roughly 3,000 US dollars.

They wondered why this was so; and began looking into constructing one for themselves using locally available materials. For this they would need their parents’ help. After drawing up a business plan and borrowing some money, they were able to construct their first greenhouse in their hometown of Kericho for around 1,000 US dolllars.

What started off as a private venture soon began attracting the attention of neighbors who began making requests to have similar greenhouses constructed. The duo obliged but soon realized that they needed to add value to their service.

Adding value

80% of their early customers complained of having a hard time managing the water resources in their greenhouses. Sometimes they would irrigate too much or forget altogether. This was having adverse impacts on their crop yields. The duo took the cue and began working on ways to fit their greenhouses with sensors to make the farmers’ lives easier.

Text message sensor

They have developed solar-powered electronic sensors that monitor conditions needed for optimal growth of plants. These include, temperature, humidity and soil moisture content. The technology regulates water supply through drip pipes which are linked to a farmer’s mobile phone. Using their phones, farmers can regulate the irrigation system remotely as well as receive SMS updates on the status of their greenhouses.

More than that, the data collected about the greenhouse environment is visualized as graphs and stored on a server for over a year to enable farmers to replicate favorable growing conditions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Making History

 The duo’s resilience has paid off in huge ways. It earned them top prize at the Seedstars competition in Nairobi, first runner up in the Best Startup in the world category   of the Global Innovation through Science and Technology-GIST TechI competition. Including an audience with current U.S. President, Barack Obama during the first ever Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Africa held in Nairobi, Kenya.

The future?

It’s bright. They have received funding from the African prize for engineering innovation programme and are already planning to franchise their sensors across several other African countries.