by Njeri Waweru**

The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming a more integral part of the evolution of technology. It refers to a system of interrelated computing devices, objects, mechanical and digital machines that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network. It serves many different industries including healthcare, manufacturing, logistics and home and consumer electronics. The agricultural sector would benefit greatly from the evolution of IoT.

African economies depend greatly on the agricultural sector therefore it is imperative that we look for solutions to produce more at a lower cost. With rapid population growth, dietary shifts, resource constraints and climate change, farmers must become more creative in order to sustain growth without increasing operation cost. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global food production will need to rise by 70 % to meet the projected demand by 2050. Farmers need to be more connected to their farms in order to minimise operation costs while maintaining high quality output. Examples include higher crop yields, lower livestock losses and less water usage. IoT technology is used to create platforms that can sense, process and communicate environmental data. With this in mind, we shall look at two ways in which IoT can benefit the agriculture sector.

Livestock monitoring

IoT allows farmers to constantly track livestock and their environs. Farmers can be alerted by phone, text or email if any condition falls outside of a predetermined parameter. CattleWatch uses cloud-based hardware/software technology to remotely monitor the health status and location of livestock. Farmers are able to access real-time data from their homes or by smartphone. The system deploys hub collars that are placed on roughly 2% of the cattle. The remainder of the herd is outfitted with collar units or ear tags. The system also relies on solar energy to power the batteries used. The technology informs the farmer on animal behaviour including herd location, walking time, grazing time, water consumption etc.

Precision farming

With IoT sensors, farmers can collect data on weather, soil, air quality and crop quality which allows them to make more informed decisions.  This promotes higher crop yields, reduces the risk of crop failure, minimises operating costs and higher profit margins. Cropx uses data and sensors informs farmers on water usage and amount of fertilizer and pesticide needed by each patch at specific times enabling farmers to respond quickly to the needs of their crops.

These solutions are being put to work in Africa and abroad. The EZ Farm, an IBM project, is running a trial which involves placing sensors such as water tank sensors and soil moisture sensors that collect and stream data to IBM’s cloud-based data centres and updates the information every minute. The project targets the urban farmers who visit their farms weekly.

SUM Africa (Scaling Up Micro-insurance in Africa) is a micro agricultural scheme based in Mali and Uganda that uses historical satellite data to predict yields and compensate farmers who are policy holders if predicted yields fall below a certain level. This way farmers are able to protect their farms from expected calamities as opposed to waiting for lengthy assessment procedures that precede compensation.

There are a number of challenges that must be considered if all farmers can benefit from IoT. First, solutions must be supported by clean, accessible energy. For example, using solar energy to power devices and sensors. This is important because our energy supply is not steady and not fully accessible to the entire population; particularly in rural areas where most of the farming takes place. Second, the solutions should not be heavily tied to the Internet because Internet connection has not been done nationwide and does not reach the areas where most of the farming takes place. Third, farmers must be educated on the benefits of these solutions and given access to these solutions. This could be done through seminars hosted by Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisations (SACCOs), subsidising the cost of installations or partnerships with companies offering these solutions.

The Internet of Things will take us through to the next phase of the evolution of technology. It serves to make our lives better and easier. The agricultural sector can greatly benefit from IoT by improving yields while minimising operations costs which in the long run creates food security for the country.

Image via findaphoto.com

**Njeri Waweru holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Strathmore University. She run a personal finance blog: www.maliyangu.co.ke.