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Digital Farm

Improving agricultural resilience and on-farm water management with IOT kits/sensors developed with African smallholders in low power areas.

Photo of Katie Messick Maddox
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How does your idea apply new technologies to make agriculture and water systems more resilient in the face of climate threats?

IOT kits will use intelligently connected devices and systems to harness soil moisture & rainfall data gathered by sensors embedded in everyday farm tools, equipping farmers with data and insight to improve water management in the face of climate threats. To increase adoption amongst farmers in low power areas without internet, we will use battery powered sensors, solar powered gateways and low power long range modules to collect data using cellular networks via Bluetooth, SMS and USSD.

Our dynamic Nairobi and London-based team works with a network of 1 million+ smallholder farmers and their families across Africa and Latin America. Local agricultural practices are key to watershed health and building more resilient ecosystems. 

Smallholder farmers are key to improving watershed health, but without the right tools and information farmers can also have a detrimental impact on local ecosystems and water system health. Smallholders are facing a myriad of challenges linked to extreme weather events and increased population density, preventing them from working to protect local watersheds. 

Key challenges identified in recent surveys with farmers include: drought, flood, degraded soils, erosion, and crop failure which are negatively impacting food production, farmers’ livelihoods and the health of local watersheds. 

Inspired to seek a solution to lift this cohort out of poverty, enable them to produce sufficient food to feed the world’s expanding population (70% of the world’s food is provided by the 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide) and safeguard watersheds and fragile ecosystems, we are developing IOT kits and remote sensors to mitigate climate change impacts and to improve on-farm water management. 

We are working directly with smallholders to develop: 1) soil moisture sensors and 2) smart water irrigation buckets to improve local watershed health by improving water management for smallholders engaged in rainfed agriculture (>95% of agricultural land in Sub-Saharan Africa is rainfed). A dependence on rainfed agriculture is risky business in an era of changing climates, erratic weather events and unpredictable rainfall. Our solutions will improve watershed health by: improving on-farm water management, decreasing chemical pollutant runoff from harmful fertilizers and improving soil quality.

  • Soil moisture sensors: On farm soil moisture sensing alongside accurate and timely weather data will catalyse improved and sustainable water management and on-farm decision making, working to improve watershed health. Soil moisture sensors paired with crop models for determining water requirements at any given time will ensure farmers preserve water and provide the accurate amount of water for crops. Further, our system will use prediction methods to forecast drought for farmers.
  • Smart irrigation buckets: Our smart irrigation system will utilise fixed timers drawing data from sensors and smart valves, weather forecasts and plantcare databases to determine specific water needs and deliver accurate amounts of moisture at the right time to crops. 


Our IOT kits will simplify and improve sustainable water management for farmers and enable them to check on crops and monitor, analyse and manage water usage using basic (nonsmart) mobiles. 

We will gather user-feedback from farmers at all stages of development, which is critical for success and long-term sustainability. Human centered testing will provide opportunities to test, learn and check our prototypes are addressing and responding to challenges outlined by farmers. We will also check that our prototypes and overall approach is easily understood, accessible and adaptable by smallholders in rural communities. Far too often seemingly sound tech-based solutions are not adapted or used because consultations/testing were not undertaken with key users at all stages.

Our tech is unique in that although it is inspired by IOT and collects accurate and timely data from farming tools and relays information to farmers’ mobile phones, it does not rely on the internet, which is not accessible to the majority of the world’s smallholders, instead we are relying on mobile networks and basic mobiles. Further, although soil moisture tech and smart irrigation systems are not new ideas, few systems exist that are accessible and affordable to rural farmers in low power areas without access to the internet or smartphones. In order to have impact at scale, our solution must be accessible and affordable to the most remote farmers. 

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Surveys/focus groups with 900+ farmers confirmed the need for low-cost solutions to combat water shortages, improve watershed health and generally combat climate threats. We conducted initial testing of our soil moisture prototype with 42 Kenyan farmers in early 2017 and are incorporating feedback into our next iteration. We are developing a non-functional irrigation bucket prototype to share with key stakeholders until funds are secured to build a functional prototype to test with farmers.

We are excited to learn about ideas at diverse stages of development. At what stage would you currently classify your idea as? (multiple choice)

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

How do you plan to grow or scale this idea?

We will replicate/scale in Africa to 13 partner farming cooperatives (209,828 farmers) prior to scaling to the remaining 24 cooperatives globally. Once we have a more robust product with demonstrated value, we will look to NGOs, university and corporate/agribusiness partners to replicate and scale globally (looking at subscription models, partners absorbing costs and/or selling via distribution networks). Continued user-testing will guarantee our product remains affordable and accessible.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

OpenIDEO provides a great opportunity for collaboration with other innovators as well as an effective and interactive network where we can share ideas and learn from the broader community. We are keen to get technical feedback to refine our idea/prototype and to link into the numerous partners and vast network of advisors and investors highlighted in this challenge (i.e. listed challenge sponsors, advisory board & links to the Climate Ventures 2.0 Accelerator).

This idea emerged from:

Hunger, poverty and water are inextricably linked. Isolated farmers do not have access to information necessary to respond to persistent climate threats. Our prototypes emerged from years in the field, testing with farmers and a passion to develop a low-cost, accessible solution to empower agricultural communities with life-changing knowledge and water management solutions to help agricultural systems bear the stress of climate change and reduce hunger, decrease poverty and safeguard watersheds.

Tell us about your work experience:

We are a unique, collaborative and award winning team of NGO and tech people from Kenya, Haiti and the UK committed to identifying tangible, tech-based solutions to improve water management practices for farmers. Our team offers decades of experience working with farmers and developing low-cost tech solutions. Our tech members are qualified and talented engineers and designers with diverse experiences in East Africa. We are also experts in conducting user testing with farmers for digital platforms, showcased by the successful development and launch of WeFarm. Prior work has won awards from Google, Nominet Trust, MasterCard Labs & the Global Resilience Partnership (Rockefeller, SIDA & USAID).
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Team (7)

Sam's profile
Sam Webb

Role added on team:

"Sam has been an active participant in developing this idea from the start and has participated in prototype testing with Ian, Louis, Sylvia, and smallholder farmers in Kenya. Sam is also our comms lead at Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation and will be sharing all of our awesome stories with the broader community. Look to Sam for some great videos down the line..."

Sylvia's profile
Sylvia Ng'eno

Role added on team:

"She is the person who makes it all happen on the ground. Sylvia is the mastermind behind our innovative projects on the ground in East Africa and provides a key link between work in the UK and Africa. She was born into a smallholder Tea community in the highlands of Kenya. Sylvia was a key actor in the development, testing and implementation of WeFarm (winner of the 2014 Google Impact Challenge). Her professional experience, networks & vast knowledge make her well placed to realise this project."

Katie's profile
Ian's profile
Ian Mihuro

Role added on team:

"Lead developer at Intellisoftplus in Nairobi (software development & services company with expertise in UK/UI design, development, deployment & integration of web and mobile software and hardware solutions). He’s the guy that will make all of our ideas come to life and will design/build our awesome prototypes. Ian has worked in partnership with the rest of our team to conduct initial user-testing in Nandi Hills, Kenya. Ian is a big believer in catalysing the transformation and growth of Africa."

Jean Baptiste's profile
Jean Baptiste Francois

Role added on team:

"Jean Baptiste, is a native of Haiti, and a son of rural people. He has a degree in Agricultural Science, focusing on Vegetable Production, making him our go to person for all things ag related! He will be key resource to check that our prototypes are also applicable in Latin America and he will be sure to keep us on track as we identify and develop innovative solutions to monitor, analyse and manage watersheds"

Louis's profile
Louis Wajeiya

Role added on team:

"Louis is the CEO at Intellisoftplus, but he ‘s known as the Lead Magician. He is a master at interpreting client and user needs and excels at leading his team of gifted individuals toward shared goals. Louis, like his peers at Intellisoftplus, believes in empowering users to have access to the necessary tools and data anywhere, anytime and from any device, which makes him a big believer in this project! Louis has conducted field tests in Kenya to test functionality of prototypes with farmers."

Brian's profile
Brian Muthangia

Role added on team:

"Brian is a cross-breed of a data designer and a full-stock javascript developer. Brian believes tech backed with good design can change life as we know it and is excited about the potential of this project to change lives for smallholders and improve the way we safeguard watersheds."

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Photo of Rebecca Mincy
Team

Hi Katie and team: Congrats on your success so far. I am the Portfolio Manger for Agriculture at Acumen in Nairobi (and former IDEO.org team member). I am following the development of your idea with great interest. Good luck! Rebecca

Photo of Katie Messick Maddox
Team

Hi Rebecca,
Thanks for your note! Apologies I didn't see this sooner! It would be great to link you up with our team in Nairobi! Can you share your email and I'll get in touch? Thanks so much for your encouragement!
Cheers, Katie

Photo of Rebecca Mincy
Team

Hi Katie:  My email address is rmincy@acumen.org. Feel free to reach out any time. I am based in Nairobi. Good luck with the rest of the challenge and with refining your idea. Rebecca

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