Kenya: Smart greenhouses controlled via SMS

How greenhouses, sensor technologies and ICT have converged to enable remote irrigation using SMS in Kenya.

Agriculture is the backbone of many African countries. And while greenhouses have long been adopted as a solution to rain-fed traditional practices, they still have their limitations. But now, greenhouse technology, sensor technology and ICT have converged to enable farmers irrigate their greenhouses remotely using an SMS.

Kenyan startup Illuminum Green Houses was launched in 2013 to provide a platform where farmers can monitor and perform a range of irrigation tasks on their greenhouses from anywhere anytime of the day.

“We seek to create limitless integrated modern greenhouses with sensors that monitor aspects such as temperature, humidity, soil moisture and most importantly regulate the water supply which is channelled through drip lines and link them up to the farmers’ mobile phones,” Taita Ngetich, the startup’s co-founder, tells IDG Connect.

The system is powered by solar panels and therefore useful in rural areas where electricity is largely unavailable. It is also designed to provide the farmer with periodic reports on the greenhouse. The farmer can ping the system any time and receive a summary of microclimate parameters.

“Our greenhouse sensor technology system works by measuring and monitoring specific conditions needed for optimum plant growth. If these parameters are exceeded, the system rectifies and notifies the farmer through text. The data collected is uploaded and updated to an online server for analyses to provide information such as temperature-against-time graphs. The information is stored for up to a year to help the farmer plan for the next season,” Ngetich explains.

The soil moisture sensor monitors and regulates soil water levels. If this falls beyond the required minimum, the sensor triggers the electronic valve and irrigation starts. The farmer is informed accordingly. When the sensor is satisfied with the amount of water in the soil, it sends impulses closing the valve and halting irrigation. Once again, the farmer gets a text on the happenings.

“The gadget is installed with a SIM Card from any mobile service provider. However, at the moment we use Safaricom due to its network coverage countrywide. This SIM card is loaded with airtime and internet bundles and subscribed to the unlimited SMS service by the provider for 5Ksh ($0.04) a day,” Ngetich explains. “The gadget has two temperature sensors, two humidity sensors and one soil moisture sensor.”

But in Africa, not everything goes right. Instances of low service connectivity are common. What happens when the farmer never gets the message sent or for any other reason fails to respond to the communication from the greenhouse?

“The system is very intelligent. If the farmer fails to respond to the first SMS for more than 30 minutes, the gadget automatically starts irrigating the crops until the moisture content is restored,” Ngetich clarifies.

With more than 300 sensor-tech greenhouses in use, the company is moving in the right direction. While efforts are currently underway to ensure the system becomes a complete case of “telefarming”.

“We are working on integrating CCTV cameras to enable farmers in their offices see what is happening in their greenhouses,” Ngetich says. “They will be getting SMS alerts of unauthorised persons entering their greenhouses especially during harvesting time to avoid losses.”

The co-founder understands that smallholder farmers largely depend on wells with electronic pumps and paid water services suffering heavy water bills. This can be remedied with the use of efficient and automated drip irrigation that is triggered only when needed and uses only the required amount. This therefore eliminates errors associated with human control.

Due to the current high costs of equipment, the system goes for about $356 but there is an option for the basic kit comprising of soil moisture sensor, gate valve and the main unit for just $89. With projected bulk production and increased penetration, the system is looking to reduce the projected price to as low as $150 in future.

“We believe small scale farmers will find this technology very interesting and improve water conservation thereby reducing costs of irrigation and water supply,” Ngetich concludes.