The biggest challenge that Wairimu Mureithi has faced for a long time is ensuring her crops are well watered.
The arrangement between Ms Mureithi and her farm managers hired to tend to her 20-acre farm in Nyeri is ensuring the crops are irrigated on a precise schedule.
But according to Ms Mureithi who has a full-time job in Nairobi, the managers sometimes shortchange her and do not irrigate the crops religiously, thereby denying her the opportunity to enjoy maximum yields.
In the place where water is rationed and allowed only two times a week, the farm managers sometimes fail to store enough for irrigation on the days that water is not available. On other days, the untrustworthy farmhands skip the irrigation exercise or irrigatewith too much water to skip a few days and attend to their own business.
“Since I work in Nairobi, I cannot fully supervise what my farm managers do in Nyeri. They sometimes fail to irrigate the crops and lie to me that they have done it. It hurts when I visit my farm and find the crops drying,” Ms Mureithi says.
Ms Mureithi was therefore one of the distressed farmers who attended an agricultural show in Nairobi earlier this year looking for tips on irrigation management.
She says she was lucky to come across the stand where a team of experts from Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology were explaining to eager farmers the smart way to manage farm irrigation.
The innovators, led by Mr Benson Muoki, a technologist in the Electrical and Electronics Department at JKUAT are working on an irrigation management tool that eliminates the need for human input.
At the show, the technologist demonstrated how with the use of this technology, a farmer is able to remotely manage irrigation at the farm whenever the crops need watering.
The tool, dubbed ‘Irrigation Manager’ is also able to tell the exact water requirements of a particular crop including those that thrive in wet soil such as rice and its exact water requirements. Mr Muoki says the equipment regulates amount of water used in irrigation of crops so that crops are neither under-irrigated nor drenched in water.
Lazy farm managers
The purely automated irrigation manager works with sensors that detect wetness of the soil and provides the exact water requirements of a particular crop, thereby replacing human labour when irrigating crops.
“Farm managers are not always honest when irrigating farms. They sometimes use excess water so as to skip some days which results to wastage. An irrigation manager does not require input of a farmer or of the unreliable farm managers,” Mr Muoki says.
“The soil wetness sensors give the correct wetness level of a particular crop such that it can neither underwater nor overwater,” explains the researcher.
The prototype farm manager has demo farms that have varying degrees of wetness. There is a control dry farm to test the sensors’ ability to test dryness and hence the farm’s water requirement.
There are also two other typical farms: a wet farm to represent needs of crops such as rice that require a lot of water and a normal farm such as a maize and beans farm, which does not require too much wetness.
The farms are interlinked with sensors that detect soil wetness and the water pump which, on being triggered, it lets out water according to a farm’s requirements.
When water level goes down and the farm requires watering, the water pump is instantly triggered to let out water that is only enough for the crop’s immediate water needs.
“When the farm attains the maximum required wetness level the water pump is instantly stopped by command from the sensors,” Mr Muoki explains.
He adds: “My sensors are also adjustable to any kind of crop. All I have to do when I visit your farm is to change the frequency setting to fit the farm requirements.”
He explains that the machine which is powered by solar, battery or electricity also saves on energy costs.
The engineer also works with plant health researchers at the university who inform the project on the water requirements of each particular crop.
So far, the plant health researchers have helped the innovators compile data on different major crops grown in Kenya and their exact water needs. Mr Muoki says the data informs the kind of frequency adjustment on the irrigation manager to suit a particular crop’s water requirements wherever the machine is installed.
Farming with data
“Our aim is to help the farmer save on water, energy and on workforce because with our irrigation manager, the sensors replace human thinking at the farm,” Mr Muoki says.
He explains that technology only requires someone to check on whether or not the machines are working and to see that the sensors, inserted 6cm deep in the farm, are correctly fixed in the soil to pick the soil wetness.
All the farmer does, therefore, is to visit the farm to ensure that the sensors are not tampered with. Expressing her interest in the machine, Ms Mureithi told Smart Harvest her plans to expand her farming will only succeed if she invests in proper irrigation.
She already has plans to buy the irrigation manager, whose price including installation and construction of a simple protective structure in the farm has been estimated at Sh120, 000.
“The technologist already told me the machine will detect the water requirements of my farm and only irrigate when necessary. Where I farm, the water comes only twice every week and I can’t afford to lose any drop of it,” says Ms Mureithi who grows vegetables, tomatoes and other crops on her farm in Nyeri.