Online tool for irrigation, fertiliser needs

Weather station
Copyright: The Smart Irrigator

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  • Africa’s agriculture growth suffers from lack of data on water needs of crops
  • A new tool developed in Kenya aims to help farmers compute requirements of crops
  • But an expert says it fails to give location-specific climate change information

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[NAIROBI] Farmers in Africa are set to benefit from an online tool offering advice on services such as irrigation and fertiliser use.
The internet portal known as Smart Irrigator computes crops’ daily water requirements.
According to Peter Okoth, Kenya-based consultant in research and agronomy and one of the brains behind it, the technology which was launched on 8 September aims to increase efficiency of irrigation systems.
“It calculates water demands at different periods of the crop season,” Okoth tells SciDev.Net, noting that “the tool considers factors such as rooting depth and the maximum allowable loss of water.”

“It calculates water demands at different periods of the crop season.”

Peter Okoth


Okoth, says that users and farmers can register their names, location, soil texture, date of planting in the portal while also selecting crop of choice for irrigation water advice. “The information is sent to the subscribed farmers’ phone in text form [and] the farmer pays a monthly fee of US$5-10 to obtain the data and information.”
The portal also computes selected crops’ fertiliser needs during growth stages and relays these to the farmer, including information on pests and diseases associated with growth stages.
The innovation brings crop production technology from the researchers’ books to the farmer directly, Okoth says. “Through the messages and implementing the recommendations, farmers are able to double or treble their crop yields,” he explains.
The tool is for African farmers experiencing low crop productivity from erratic rainfall but can be applied anywhere as it provides agronomic and fertiliser recommendations for about 30 crops, including maize, beans, tomatoes and water melons, according to Okoth. 
Currently, it is being piloted in the drier areas of Kenya, specifically semi-arid Kajiado and Machakos counties that are experiencing continuous water scarcity among 15 farmers, with the cost paid by the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations (IAEA).
He explains that the portal is a product of discussion between, the then Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and himself. Discussions started in 2012, with a contract of US$100,000 from the IAEA signed in 2014. It took eight months to develop the tool.
The open-field drip irrigation advisory is based on weather data collected by automatic weather stations installed within a specific locality where such stations exist and can be purchased and installed.
Okoth says the tool can be used most people “but the older generation who are not technology savvy might be left out for the time being”.
According to William Ndegwa, Kitui County director at the Kenya Meteorological Department, the tool is novel.
 “Lack of information on crop types and varieties, and their respective soil fertility requirements, and how to integrate with different agronomic needs for farmers has always been a major impediment to agricultural productivity in Africa,” Ndegwa explains.
“Given that the system enables a farmer to receive information on [the] phone through SMS [short message service] or online,” Ndegwa adds, “it offers major savings on extension costs among public and private sectors.”
Availability of farm-level understandable weather information has always been a challenge to meteorological services in Africa, he says.

But Ndegwa notes that the technology assumes income and profits are the only functions of productivity. “Other parameters of input and output markets have not been considered,” he notes, citing the need for rainfed farmers to require location-specific climate information and advice on post-harvest issues.
The system, he says, also ignores long-term climate information necessary for setting farm-level crop growth thresholds.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.