Agri-preneur finds profits in detecting pests and diseases

Esther Kimani, CEO of Farmer Lifeline Technologies that detects crop pests and diseases on the farm after winning her pitch. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

Born and raised in Tigoni village, along the Slopes of the Aberdares in Nyandarua County, Esther Kimani saw her parents and other smallholder farmers struggle and lose produce to pests and diseases.

This saw her grow up thinking about solutions that could help deal with the pests and disease menace. But it was while at the University pursuing Computer Science that she resolved to leverage her technology skills and develop an innovative idea. 

“I wanted to solve the pest and disease menace for smallholder farmers because they put a lot of effort to produce food and feed the nation, unfortunately, they waste a lot of it on pests and disease invasion. This is caused by delays in identifying pests and diseases,” she said. 

So in 2019, she created a startup named Farmer Lifeline Technologies where she is the chief executive. She built an innovative device that helps smallholder farmers to detect crop pests and diseases at early stages, saving farmers millions of shillings incurred in diagnosis and late treatment.

The 27-year-old began with a capital of Sh1 million which she pooled from family and friends but also kept pumping more money into the innovation. She has also received $50,000 (Sh6.85 million) from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) and support from other bodies including the African Development Bank and Global Centre for Adaptation.

Financial support

“The financial support has really propelled my innovation forward and helped me make huge strides in growing the business. We have also been supported in training and looking forward to more,” said Ms Kimani. 

Recently, her startup Farmer Lifeline Technologies won Sh1 million in a competition. Ms Kimani was among 10 contestants who had pitched their innovations to Seeds for Sustainable Energy, promoted by BeEntrepreneurs APS and Joule, Eni School of Entrepreneurship with the support of the Embassy of Italy in Nairobi and E4 Impact.

The program’s aim was to support and improve sustainable and innovative agriculture solutions in Kenya.

Ms Kimani terms the competition tough and credits her win to the relevance of her innovation. “I am going to invest the financial award into research and development to further commercialize our activities to benefit more farmers,” she said.

The pitch came after a week-long boot camp where all the 10 participating youthful innovators worked with Eni’s and BeEntrepreneurs’ training and mentoring them on design thinking sessions to help them fine-tune their mission and goals, assess the ecosystem needs and future scenarios, map relevant local and global stakeholders for their business.

She first piloted the device on her parents’ farm, then to neighbors and friends, as expansion continued.

She explains she leveraged more on direct marketing and also farmers’ events, seminars, and trade fairs. Soon, referrals started coming her way.

She recalls, “Initially, people thought it was a CCTV, creating a lot of attention. But this was to my advantage as I seized the opportunity to sensitize and urged farmers to embrace the innovation. It worked wonders.” The innovation has grown into leaps, not only helping farmers identify pests and diseases in advance but also generating thousands of shilling in revenue for the founder.

Today, she has installed 2,000 devices and works with 5,000 farmers. She leases a device to a farmer for Sh100 a month. She caters for all the installations. One device costs Sh5,000 to install and has other costs for maintenance.

One device can serve up to three smallholder farmers, where each pays Sh100 per month. For large scale farmers, they need more devices.

It is mounted on a long pole with a camera facing the farm, covering a radius of 600 metres and 180 degrees. The camera system is programmed to capture images of the crops in the field periodically and process the images using advanced computer vision algorithms to determine the nature of the infection or infestation, any pests or pathogens.

“After the camera captures and detects pests and diseases in the farm, the system notifies the farmer through a simple SMS on their mobile phones, for the next action to be taken.”

Research and development 

Ms Kimani plans to invest in research and development to increase the features, so as to serve more farmers, especially those in misty and foggy areas since it uses solar.

She started in Nyandarua and is now in Kiambu with eyes on Machakos, Embu, Meru, Nyeri, and other counties.

Esther wants to partner with cooperatives, and research organizations in agriculture-those dealing with pests and diseases and mitigation measures.

She explains, so far solar is the best as they promote clean energy and it’s easier to operate even in areas where farmers do not have electricity connectivity.

Apart from the monthly subscription, Ms Kimani also generates money by selling data.

“We commercialise data. There are different organisations that want that information such as which pests have been prevalent, where, what season, and what were the conditions. That is the data we have on our data dashboard,” she explains.

She has already patented her device to avoid theft cases or copycats. It has a lifespan of five to 10 years. But with proper maintenance, it can last more years.

“I can say Kenya is very receptive to technology, especially after covid-19, people learned there is a new way in which things can be done. It actually created an opportunity for entrepreneurs who are bringing in technologies for smallholder farmers in the rural areas.”

She explains there’s still more to learn because technology evolves every day.