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Vertical Gardens

The Standard
Imagine irrigating and monitoring activities in your farm remotely from any part of the world using your phone. Well think no further.

Imagine irrigating and monitoring activities in your farm remotely from any part of the world using your phone. Well think no further. This has been made possible thanks to a simple application —Smart Farm — that can monitor farming activities without the farmer being there physically. The firm behind the app — Ukulima Tech — an agriculture startup came up with the idea in 2014 after realising there is a need.

“We realised many farmers are busy people and they employ farmhands to monitor their projects. But sometimes these helpers fail in their duties. You find water running aimlessly in the farm in the name of irrigation. With this app a farmer addresses such problems,” says Hansel Wangara, the co-founder of Ukulima Farm and the idea.

“You can use it to activate or deactivate the water pump, open or close valves, and to query data from the farm like soil moisture content, water levels in the reservoir for irrigation and temperatures,” Wangara tells Smart Harvest.

The application works through a module installed on the farm, which, through the application, notifies the owner when, for instance, the water levels are down. The application is customised based on the clients’ needs. So how much does it cost to install the app?

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How it works

To fix a module on the tower gardens similar to those used in aquariums costs Sh3,500. This would operate one water pump.

However, a complete installation of the cheapest garden automation module that can operate eight water pumps cost Sh22,648. This includes transport charges within Nairobi.

The installation, he says it requires a smart phone and uses bluetooth and GSM communication. For the automation systems, Ukulima Tech encourages people to use either solar cells or wind energy if they can afford wind turbines to power the automation system. For farmers who are interested, Wangara, says they offer tutorials on how to use the app. Wangara says the app is particularly beneficial to urban dwellers.

“Using this app, city dwellers can incorporate farming into their busy schedule because now they will be able to monitor farming activities from the comfort of their offices,” he explains.

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And how does it work?

“When you activate irrigation using the app, it sends a command to the module. So the module (the gadget at the farm where the app picks the signal) is connected either to the pump or to the reservoir tank. When it opens the valve from the pump or from the reservoir tank, the water will flow through gravity into the drip irrigation pipes and the crops are irrigated.

Wangara explains that an important factor when considering the installation is from where a farmer is sourcing the irrigation water from.

“If you’re sourcing it from a dam, that means you have to have some pump somewhere from the dam. If you have a dam somewhere you will activate it and then it will pump the water to the farm,” he explains.

Good and bad side

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Another important factor is how far you are sourcing the water.

“If it’s an overhead tank, or you’re sourcing water from a higher level, then all you need is a valve. A valve is like an electronic tap. So you just activate it to open, then water flows through gravity to the farm.”

There are added benefits.

“We have also included the concept of drip irrigation on to the automation system, which channels water directly to the roots of the crop. So you don’t have to use sprinklers to spray water all over the place,” he says.

Other than the price factor, what are the other disadvantages of this app? Energy for powering the system, Wangara says.

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“To get around that, we recommend use of solar energy because it is free and chances of experiencing blackout are minimal. If you want to use electricity we recommend you use a backup somewhere,” Wangara advises.

Another challenge is that most people who have the app and module prefer to do it the manual way, so that they turn the module on and off themselves from the house instead of setting the app to be automatic which is more efficient.

Other than the app, Ukulima Tech has also developed several innovative methods of doing modern farming, tailored for people in urban areas, such as vertical farming.

“We show urban dwellers how to convert their balconies into farms,” he says. One can also make tower gardens, where the holes for the crops are drilled on both sides of the pipes and then placed upright instead of horizontally.

Using vertical farming, one can grow a large amount of crops in a small area, such as a balcony even using old plastic bottles to construct the gardens. One strong point about vertical farming over traditional method is that it helps in water conservation.

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“the water used to irrigate flows in a loop. We have a reservoir where the water is pumped up to irrigate the crops, then the excess water is channeled back to the reservoir,” says Wangara.

irrigation farming