A killer app for Africa's 'telephone farmers' - watch your plants grow, from your mobile or computer screen

EZ-farm is nifty combination of a soil moisture sensor, a water tank level monitor and - best of all - an infrared camera that monitors plant health.

WHEN you think of an African farmer, the first image that will probably come to mind is that of an old man in the village, probably dressed in shabby clothes that have seen better days.

Indeed, a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) indicated that in Africa, the average age of farmers is about 60, despite the fact that 60% of Africa’s population is under 24 years of age.

Rural youth have been leaving the farms for cities in droves for years now; between 1960 and 2010,  the continent’s urban population grew from 53 million to 400 million; by 2030, the number of Africans living in towns and cities will increase by another 345 million.

With aged parents left behind tending the farm, it raises questions about future prospects for increasing farm productivity as Africa’s demand for food grows larger.

However, there is some good news; there’s a new generation of farmers coming up in many cities who represent the future of African farming.

New urban tech farmer

They are young, tech-savvy, resident in the city, probably employed full-time in an office job, but own some land in a peri-urban or rural area that they inherited from their parents, or bought as an investment.

They travel to their out-of-town farms only on weekends, hiring a farm manager to take care of the everyday running of the farm, and frequently telephoning to check on progress.

With demand for fruits, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs soaring as African cities grow larger, it’s a solid investment that can give lucrative returns.

But many ‘telephone farmers” struggle to keep up with what’s really happening on the ground.

You can’t really get a true sense of how the crops are doing from conversations on the phone with a farm manager. (Photo: flickr/ ICT4D)

This is where IBM Research  Africa sees and opportunity, with a new innovation they call EZ-Farm.

It’s a nifty combination of a soil moisture sensor, a water tank level monitor and - best of all - an infrared camera that monitors plant health.

Big Data

The soil moisture sensor looks like an electrode that is placed in the ground, and sends data to the IBM cloud on the level of water availability. 

The water tank monitor is installed on the inside cover of a water tank, and measures the level of water still in the tank by acoustic waves, like what bats use in echolocation. It sends out a sound wave and detects how long it takes to be reflected back, by this you can gauge how deep the water is in the tank.

But the “killer app” is the plant health monitor that uses infrared light to monitor soil health. 

Plants absorb red and blue light to fuel photosynthesis, but reflect green and infrared light (it’s the reason why plants look green to our eyes).

With the infrared camera, one can detect the areas in the plant of intense photosynthesis, where blue light is being absorbed and infrared light reflected. If the plant isn’t getting enough water, or is stressed in any way, photosynthesis will slow down, and less infrared light will be reflected.

By this, a farmer can really “see” whether the plants are coming along nicely, or not,; like a finger on a pulse, it’s a kind of vegetative “vital sign” that can provide an early warning if a plant’s health is failing - even if your farm manager or relative in the countryside doesn’t call to tell you.

All this Big Data is collected every minute of every day, and sent to the IBM cloud, where it delivers up-to-the-minute insight about current and predicted water and soil moisture levels to farmers, via desktop and mobile apps - specific to that particular farm, going by the “optimum health”  from the plant stress monitor.

It’s the kind of granular, highly targeted and tech-friendly farm management system that telephone farmers in Nairobi are already scrambling to get their hands on.

IBM says EZ-farm is still in the pilot phase, though they have already received dozens of requests.

The company is looking to have the devices assembled locally in Kenya, but their biggest challenge going forward is finding a local manufacturer who can deliver on the specs in the large volumes that will be required very soon.


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