The unpredictable weather conditions in central Kenya create challenges for many small farmers. The country is categorized as a water-scarce nation, as most of its landmass is considered arid or semi-arid. To compensate, growers traditionally water their crops with cans or buckets, creating inefficient and uneven irrigation. This system resulted in irregular and costly harvests — until scientists from Kenya’s Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) stepped in to advance water conservation in Kenya.
Daniel Maitethia and a team of scientists from MUST discovered a solution: a “sensor-based automatic irrigation system” app. Launched last year at MUST’s own test farm, the system uses sensors strategically placed throughout fields. Drip lines are installed into subdivided portions and water is automatically channeled. When the soil is dry, the system then uses solar panels to open a water tank. The sensors then alert the system when enough water has been supplied, and then the irrigation shuts off — saving valuable water.
Water Conservation via an App
The secret to the system’s success lies in the user interface of the app. Farmers can operate the system remotely through text messages to the app. Some of the controls available at the push of a button consist of turning on water pumps, opening specified water valves, closing open valves and re-channeling irrigation.
There’s little doubt about the wide-reaching benefits of MUST’s system, especially regarding water conservation in Kenya. Additionally, labor costs can also be reduced. On-site farm attendants are no longer needed to oversee and implement irrigation daily. Any alerts in the system are sent to the farmer via text.
Cost Savings and Maintenance
Farmers like John Njeru are already realizing the benefits. He used to hire other farmers to help water his land, but with the system in place, he no longer needs the extra hands. He reports that his labor costs are reduced by 20,000 Kenyan shillings or $192 per month. Further, Njeru is seeing less food loss: “I used to lose up to 70% of my produce as a result of dry weather and inefficient irrigation, compared to only 10% now.”
Maitethia understands the need for potential troubleshooting and technical support. He advised that if there is a “glitch” in the system, the farmer will receive a text explaining the problem. He promised support, saying “a technician employed by the university will then help the farmer remotely with instructions, or physically come to the farm if needed.”
Maitethia remains hopeful for future expansion. He advised that the system received one million Kenyan shillings ($9,600) by the Water Services Trust Fund in November 2016 as the best innovation in the country in water resource management. He hopes that the award, coupled with other potential partnerships, will increase the availability of this system to benefit water conservation in Kenya.
– Gisele Dunn