Kenya’s smart greenhouse texts when your tomatoes need watering

Award-winning greenhouses designed by two Kenyan students allow farmers to control temperature, humidity and soil moisture on their mobile phones.

The Guardian
Murithi Mutiga in Nairobi

Illuminum Greenhouses run on solar power and the irrigation system can be turned off and on by text message. Photograph: Illuminum Greenhouses

Best friends Brian Bett and Taita Ng’etich were enjoying their first semester in university – until they ran out of money.

“It’s always exciting starting college and there is so much going on so it was a lot of fun,” says Ng’etich. “But then we ran low on cash and we didn’t want to go back to our parents offering explanations. We decided to start a business instead to try and make our own money.”

The pair, who attended the same high school in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, initially considered setting up a movie shop “like every other teenager” but then decided on farming.
kena-1They pooled resources with four other students and went into a venture growing tomatoes in Loitokitok, a lush, wind-swept town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The scheme ended in disaster when the entire crop was wiped out by floods, but that experience gave the pair the idea of setting up a greenhouse business – one that has won a string of awards and earned them an audience with President Barack Obama during the global entrepreneurship summit in Nairobi in July.

Built from local material – which drove down costs – the greenhouse is fitted with sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and soil moisture, and sends text messages to farmers alerting them to any changes they need to make to conditions inside.

The whole unit is run on solar power and the irrigation system can be turned off and on by text message, optimizing water use and reducing waste, which is one of the main expenses for farmers.
The innovation grew out of the lessons the two students learned from their failed tomato growing business.

“We realized that we had exposed the crops to a lot of risks, including the vagaries of the changing weather,” says Ng’etich, who hopes to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Nairobi in August.

Four of the students pulled out after the initial failure, but he and Bett decided to plough on. They researched the cost of a greenhouse that would offer a more controlled environment in which to farm, but found the start-up costs prohibitive. A single unit was about $3,500 (£2,370), which was well beyond their budget.

“We investigated to see what was making the structures so expensive and decided to explore how much it would cost if we built up the whole thing on our own.”

The students, whose parents are farmers, borrowed some money from them after drawing up a business plan and put up a greenhouse in their home district of Kericho for about $1,000, using a mix of wood and metal for the construction.

“Initially, we were just doing it for our own use but neighbors soon started to visit and ask if we could construct one for them,” says Ng’etich.

That’s how Illuminum Greenhouses was born, although the team soon realized that they needed to go beyond construction. “Anybody can build a greenhouse and so we needed to add value to the product,” he says.

The idea to include sensor technology came from conversations with their customers. Eight out of 10 farmers said they struggled to manage water use, especially when farm hands left the drip irrigation system on for too long or forgot to turn it on at the right time.

The text message sensor technology they developed offers farmers more control.

The smart greenhouses have won innovation awards and funding from an engineering program. Photograph: Illuminum Greenhouses

The innovation has earned them top prize in the Nairobi finals of the Seedstars competition, and second best start-up in the world in the smart farmer category during the global entrepreneurship summit.

The Illuminum team has received seed funding to develop their idea from the African prize for engineering innovation program by the Royal Academy of Engineering and they hope to scale up the technology this year.

“We have traveled to several countries in Africa and realized there is a need for this type of greenhouse. We hope to have the sensors ready for commercial production in the first quarter of 2016 and to distribute them on a franchise model across Africa,” says Ng’etich.