?While agriculture is the backbone of Kenya’s economy accounting for about 60 per cent of total employment, farmers continue to grapple with challenges that negate productivity.
For farmers in Meru, extreme weather conditions is a notable hindrance; a condition that has driven growers to adapt small scale irrigation techniques to boost production.
The approach that has been practiced in Meru for more than three decades has had a toll on streams in the county, forcing farmers to turn to scientists to find solutions.
Towards this end, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology’s (JKUAT) Water Research and Resource Centre (WARREC) in collaboration with SNV-Netherlands is implementing two smart water projects for agricultural purposes in Meru County.
The project has provided partial scholarships to two JKUAT post-graduate students; Simon Mogere and Sarah Nagami who are working with Flying Sensors and Rota Sprayers, respectively.
The projects aim at assessing water productivity of crops grown under irrigation for smallholder farms besides evaluating the technical performance of the Rota Sprayer irrigation system with regards to water application uniformity.
Flying Sensors project, implemented in Marimba, Githongo and Kibirichia villages, uses drones, referred to as ‘Flying Sensor’ to assess water management and crop health in irrigated fields of cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables.
What the drones do
A flying sensor is a small drone that can fly up to 200m above the ground and take high resolution images utilising the Near-Infra Red (NIR) spectrums of light. The images are later decoded and the information shared with farmers.
“Using this technology, farmers can discover diseases on plants and stress indicators which are impossible to see with the naked eye thus encouraging precision farming,” explains Prof Bancy Mati, WARREC Director and the project team leader.
Researcher Mogere says the information obtained from the sensors can also help farmers make prompt decision regarding irrigation water application in various sections of the field without over-application or under-application thus ensuring optimal water usage.
Mr Patrick Gikunda, a farmer in Githongo village who had just harvested cabbages is confident that the data obtained from the flying sensor was critical in his increased yield in the current season.
On the other hand, the Rota Sprayer project assesses a new type of sprinkler that sprays water in a larger area compared to the conventional sprinklers. The project is being implemented in Kaguru and Meru Central. So far, the innovation has proven popular with small and medium-sized entrepreneurial farmers.
According to researcher Nagami, the Rota Sprayer system operates at low pressure and applies water uniformly within the wetted perimeter and can cover an area of 100m2 in one application.
In addition, the system is simplified, easy to assemble, light in weight and affordable by the SME farmers.
“The design considerations of the Rota Sprayer irrigation system makes it a better option especially for the SME farmers who have limited resources. For instance, the low operating pressure will help the farmers reduce the pumping cost. Instead of using a pump, the farmer can irrigate by gravity, using a raised tank at approximately 3m high,” says Nagami.
Mr Nathan Muthamia, a farmer in Tirimiti, Meru says the system has made him work efficiently in the relatively dry area.
“With this system, I work for two hours straight without getting worried about moving my sprinkler system for irrigation,” says Muthamia.
In comparison to the drip system, regularly used in Kenya, the Rota Sprayer system is less susceptible to clogging since the boom is made of aluminum pipes and the outlets are easy to unblock either by flushing the pipes or by using a sharp object to pierce the outlets.
“The drip system is highly susceptible to clogging of the emitters which renders the system non-functional whenever the emitters are clogged,” says Sarah. Although the system has proven popular with SME farmers, Nagami admits it is a new innovation and needs technical performance evaluation to help the farmers achieve optimum agricultural production through irrigation.
The two students are under the supervision of Prof Bancy Mati, chair of the Soil Water and Environmental Engineering Department, Eng James Messo, Prof Patrick Home and Dr Jackline Ndiiri both of Soil Water and Environmental Engineering Department and Dr Abraham Haile of SNV.