A screw driver in his right hand and an electric cable in his left, Muriungi Kithinji, 23, inserts the latter in a tiny hole and fastens it with a screw meticulously inside the greenhouse in Nyeri.
He then picks a plastic box, and with the help of his friend Denzel Wambura, 22, screws it on a post in the structure.
The students are fixing a sensor that helps farmers monitor their greenhouses and control activities remotely using an app they have also developed.
Greenhouse farming can be draining and labour intensive because the structure needs constant monitoring, which many do not do leading to losses.
The many challenges the farmers face, according to Kithinji and Wambura, are what motivated them to come up with the technology that they have named Nelion Farm System, which digitises greenhouse farming, making it convenient and stress-free.
“Inside the greenhouse we install a camera and sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and soil moisture. The gadgets collect information which the farmers accesses through the app,” explain Kithinji and Wambura, who are third year Mechatronics Engineering students at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology.
“Then one uses our app to get information from the greenhouse while miles away. One can remotely control the soil moisture, humidity, check temperature and switch on the water pump.”
The sensors and camera installed also make the farmer aware of any intrusion or security breach into the farm.
“The app is convenient for a telephone farmer, who lives in the urban area but farms in the countryside. He is able to have full control of his farm without travelling,” says Kithinji, adding the system is installed either at planting or soon after the planting.
GIVES ADVICE AND RECOMMENDATIONS
And in case of insect or disease outbreak, the farmer inputs the symptoms of the attack in the system and it recommends the appropriate control method.
Their system uses solar to power the gadgets saving the farmer the cost of paying electricity bills for most part of the year. But during the cold season, the farmer can switch to the power grid to avoid inconveniences.
“Through the system, the farmer also monitors the plant height, thus being able to know when the crop is ready for harvest.”
And even more interesting, when the crops are ready for harvest, the app informs the farmer what is happening in the markets, in terms of prices, for better decision making.
“It informs the farm of the nearby markets, where they can sell their produce and at how much,” says Kithinji.
Impressed with their innovation during a tour of the university in September, ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru contracted the duo to digitise his two greenhouses in Chaka, Nyeri. They are in the process of installing the system.
“Mr Mucheru was happy with our work that on the same day he asked us to visit his farm and start planning for the installation of the system. It was such a humbling experience that a Cabinet Secretary with the knowhow in technology can procure our services,” says Wambura.
(Read also: I spy on lethal crop diseases using cameras)
Kyle Holland, a farmer who has installed the system in his tomato greenhouse in Nyeri, says it makes farming lighter.
“For us, we were first time users of the technology and we liked it because we have been able to get data on humidity and temperature in real time.”
Wambura adds the system gives advice and recommendations on the best practices, such as what type of chemical or fertiliser is required and at what time and where can it be applied. It also suggests the best pest control methods.
SAVING ON EXPENSES
“No one wants to spend money on a venture that will take up a lot of their time travelling to the farm or employing many workers. With the system, you may only need one worker even if you have two or three greenhouses as you monitor on the other end. Everyone wants an investment that is stress-free, which is what our system offers.”
They purchase the gadgets to make the system upon order, since they currently do not have the capacity of stocking.
The system goes for Sh40,000 for greenhouses of 8 by 15m, but the price can be scaled up or down depending on the greenhouse size. The app is free.
“Once someone purchases the package, we install the app on their smartphone or computer. It took us a year to create the system. We started working on the project in August 2015 and had our first breakthrough in March,” they say, noting they have patented the idea.
Dr Monica Mburu, a food science and technology lecturer at Dedan Kimathi University, says the innovation improves greenhouse farming.
“We are encouraging farmers in trade shows to embrace such technology. It will assure them real time monitoring of their greenhouse and reduce losses.”
Benefits of growing crops in the structures
- Greenhouse is an ideal environment for growing crops as they are not affected by direct sunrays, rain, dust and insects.
- In the open field, rains hasten fungal diseases like blight in the case of tomatoes.
- Again, you use a lot of chemicals in the open field, but in a greenhouse, this is minimised. The quality of crops in the greenhouse is high, water usage is controlled and this translates to good yields.
- Soil analysis must be done so that a farmer can be advised the right quality of seeds to use.
- There is also need to follow instructions on the structural design of a greenhouse to minimise harmful heat.