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Two students take telephone farming a notch higher

Saturday March 8 2014

Peter Mbari and Kimali Muthoka in their laboratory at the University of Nairobi. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA

Peter Mbari and Kimali Muthoka in their laboratory at the University of Nairobi. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA NATION MEDIA GROUP

KINGWA KAMENCU
By KINGWA KAMENCU
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We meet at the dark and musty innovation centre Fab Lab (from Fabrication Laboratory), itself a marvel in innovation. The table I place my laptop on is a curious affair of bits of wood stacked against each other in an upward bound spiral, a board plunked perfunctorily on top.

The conjoined three-seater I am perched on was literally hauled off a matatu, the two innovators - Kimali Muthoka, 27 and Peter Mbari, 31 inform me with glee.

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology park which sits at the engineering faculty is not one of those industrial plants you see in the movies with shiny steel, spangly metal and floors scrubbed so clean you can see your reflection on them. It is a higgedly-piggedly arrangement of desks, chairs, wires, wood, plastic models and all sorts of contraptions.

Yet in this room, two students have come up with an innovation that will help busy people manage their farms from a distance, giving new meaning to the phrase “telephone farming”. It enables farmers to oversee the conditions of their crops, quite literally by phone, via SMS technology.

Having graduated in 2012, the two Mbari are not technically students, but they still study under the fab Lab academic programmes and teach. Their innovation, MkulimaHodari, has the capacity to measure humidity, temperature, soil moisture and control watering. “One can turn irrigation valves on or off through a pre-scheduled routine set at certain times by text message or using the web,” Mbari explains.

On the web, the user has an account where he or she can see all the data from the greenhouse. The data ranges from security alarm systems and water tank levels. It also indicates if the pump is on or off. The user can also see water, humidity and temperature levels of the soil and air in the greenhouse and control these.

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“It has a powerful feedback system. You can enquire about the status of the greenhouse and it will tell you what is going on in terms of humidity, temperature and moisture. You can also find out if your water tank is full or empty. You can turn the watering valve on or off. It is mostly put on automatic,” Muthoka explains.

While tailored for greenhouses, MkulimaHodari can also be used on larger farms. “It can be used on drip lines on big farms that practise drip irrigation. It can also be used by those that use sprinklers. The system is basically about controlling the flow of water into the system. With it, you never have to worry about watering your plants again. You just have to worry about the water levels in the reservoir, application of fertiliser and weeding,” he adds.

The product also has an interactive element where it sends an SMS to the farmer informing them of particular conditions and asking what action to take. “When soil moisture is low, it sends you an SMS and then gives you options on what to do,” says Muthoka.

Having graduated in 2012, the two registered their company Blink Electrics in December 2013. MkulimaHodari is their first innovation.

Having developed it, their next step is to launch and take it to the market. At present, they have one client on board who has been supplying it to five other farmers “We want to launch it soon and hope it will receive good response. We are looking forward to start mass producing it. It will be good if farmers take it up as it is built in Kenya for Kenyans,” Mbari adds.

They aim to sell each device at Sh35,000 but are also considering other means of reducing the cost. Similar systems from overseas cost between Sh50,000 to Sh60,000.

The manner in which farmers will receive this innovation remains to be seen, but the two aver that so far, their main challenges have been in the high cost of materials. “We have faced a lot of challenges with people downtown selling things at ten times the cost. A microcontroller that costs Sh90 in China is priced at Sh1,500 in Kenya, that means that we have to look for the items ourselves.”

Of what use is technology to agriculture?

“First, it is in automation. With a tool like MkulimaHodari, you can have bigger farms operated by fewer individuals. With projects like the one the government is starting at the coast, this system can be scaled up to automate such farms. With it, you don’t need to worry about watering, flooding, or misusing water.” Mbari says.

Mbari believes that the technology sector could push agriculture and in this way, is a big pillar for development in Kenya, but is not taken as seriously as it could be. “You occasionally hear of some good innovations but the best they get is ten minutes on TV. Kenyan investors should be itching to get on board of these things so that we can have these products out in the next couple of years.”

The two brim with energy as they discuss this agricultural innovation. It is not the first of its kind from them, their inventive natures began from childhood when they would take apart radio’s and other machinery in the house and occasionally use their inventiveness to pull pranks. “I set up a system to ring an alarm whenever the main door opened so I was never caught doing anything wrong when anyone came in.”

They breezed through secondary school as top students, their love for tinkering with machines seeing them win prizes at science congress events separately.

In 2012, Mbari won the NASA space apps challenge (People’s choice award) for inventing a system that could monitor solar energy use by SMS. His current title at their company – Blink Electrics- is chief hardware architect. Kimali has not been one for resting on his laurels either. Currently the Fabrication Lab’s project manager, he won the Africa maker award for Best Water Engineer Project in 2010 and alongside his engineering ventures, writes plays in French. One came in third place in the annual school’s drama festival.

MkulimaHodari aside, they have come up with a hand held tool that screens for breast cancer and a neon message display board that can constantly be updated by sms, for use in advertising. Their hospital infant incubator won an award for its ‘high economic potential’ at a bio-medical engineering summer school in Kampala in 2012. They also scooped two awards from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, ‘Winner international design competition’ and ‘most economically viable innovation’ in 2012. The emphasis they give to all these innovations is that they are affordable and accessible and tailored specifically to the Kenyan market.

While it is often thought that the sectors of technology and agriculture are worlds apart, this current creative buzz seen with the rise of hubs such as the University of Nairobi’s Fab lab and Ngong Road’s iHub among others, can only lead to good things for farmers. All over the world, the meeting of technological innovation and agriculture have spawned revolutions, which have driven civilization forward.