15 July 2018

Rwanda: Young Innovators Develop Solar-Powered Technology to Manage Farming Remotely

Photo: Emmanuel Ntirenganya/The New Times
Arsene Simbi Rutangira (third left) explains how the solar-powered soil test and automatic irrigation system works.

Farmers will be able to manage farming practices such as effective irrigation of their crops without necessarily being at their farms thanks to a solar-powered technology developed by Rwandan young innovators.

The technology uses solar-fueled sensors and irrigation to collect data on soil moisture, nutrient needs and water needed to foster crop growth.

It is in line with a project of Precise Agriculture (PA), a modern farming management model using digital techniques to monitor and optimise agricultural production processes that the innovators, members of the Kicukiro District-based STES Group, a company which was founded by technical innovators and researchers, have undertaken.

STES Group is made of members from different engineering disciplines (Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering, Computer, Civil Engineering and Electrical Engineering). They started working on the technology in 2016.

According to experts in PA, instead of applying the same amount of fertilisers over an entire farmland, this farming model will measure variations in conditions within a given farm and adapt its appropriate fertilising or harvesting strategy.

Data about the state of soil is displayed on a farmer's phone screen and the technology gives them a variety of activities to perform accordingly. Emmanuel Ntirengnya

The technique seeks to increase the quantity and quality of farm output (produce) while using less input (water, energy, fertilisers, pesticides, among others). The aim is to save costs, reduce environmental impact and produce more and better food.

"A person from Cyangugu (Rusizi District) can log in the application on their phone and they can for instance know that their farmland in Rwamagana District lacks water. They do not have to tell a person in Rwamagana to go and irrigate their farm, rather, as a person enters their phone to search contacts, there are many options in the application including automatic irrigation," Narcisse Musabirema, 28, one of the team members who created the technology said.

Musabirema said that normally, people would till the land, sow, de-weed, and harvest without knowing what has occurred within their farms; they do not know the state and quantity of fertilisers and the quantity of water in soil, as well as the level of nutrient deficiency in the soil.

"So that is the problem the precision agriculture technology we developed wants to solve," he explained adding that the technology has been tested and it has yielded good results.

The system costs between Rwf258,000 ($300) and Rwf430,000 ($500), according to Arsène Simbi Rutangira, the representative of the STES group.

A solar-powered soil test and irrigation technology being tested in a farm early this year. Courtesy.

How the system works

One sensor and automated irrigation device can work on one hectare, if it is a flat farmland. But, there should be availability of water in water tanks or dams as well as irrigation equipment such as drip irrigation tubes.

The system uses sensors that are put in the soil to measure the state of soil including temperature, moisture and humidity as well as nutrients levels so as to control them accordingly.

They use an online platform that goes by the name 'farmbook' which has various options including automatic irrigation, moisture and state of soil nutrients.

The arrangement, he said, allows a farmer to monitor what is happening on their farm while at home or elsewhere by use of a phone.

By using signal, the sensors tell a farmer to stop irrigating once the water that a crop needs is enough, he observed.

Speaking on Friday as he visited the young innovators, Fulgence Nsengiyumva, the Minister of State in charge of Agriculture, said the government had put in place the fourth strategic plan for agriculture transformation whose main aspect is using ICT, and encouraging the youth to engage in agribusiness.

"We have irrigation activities where a person waters crops without knowing the quantity of water they have used, sometimes it is much, sometimes less, or they do not even know when the water in their soil has exhausted. So, this technology can help us ensure efficient irrigation to get improved and sustainable yields," he said.

The technology was exhibited during the 13th National Agriculture Show at Mulindi last week.

Nsengiyumva said that a delegation from Congo-Brazzaville, led by the Minister of Agriculture, Breeding and Fishing, which was on a five-day working visit to Rwanda, recently appreciated the technology and expressed interest in using it in their country.

The developers, he said, should scale up the technology so as to commercialise it to get profits from it and for many farmers to benefit from it.

Rwanda targets to increase irrigated agricultural land from over 48,500 hectares in 2017 to 102,284 hectares by 2024 according to its fourth Strategic Plan for Agriculture Transformation (PSTA4).

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