Lower-cost ag tech solutions

There is a growing awareness that the need for precision agriculture is even more critical in developing countries where resources are scarce

TV white space
A lack of broadband infrastructure in rural parts of developing countries is preventing farmers from connecting to potential buyers, suppliers and using administration tools online. But constructing a network of cabling and junctions could cost billions of dollars and may be beyond the scope of poorer economies. However, researchers have found a way to deliver broadband across large areas using television signals or so-called TV white space.
The white space exists between frequencies that are already occupied by TV channels and can carry a broadband signal. The signal is broadcast from an existing TV substation and one trial in India has shown that a strong broadband signal could be picked up 16km away. Because the signal is broadcast in all directions from a TV transmitter, the area covered could extend to hundreds of square km and bring internet access to a huge number of remote farms. 

In-field moisture sensors
Water is often a scarce resource on small farms in developing countries, making its efficient use crucial. But matching irrigation closely to the soil moisture levels can require costly software and a reliable power source. To combat the problem Ideo.org - a product design company dedicated to helping vulnerable communities - is developing a low-cost soil moisture sensor to provide farmers with the information they need.

The 30cm-long, soil probe is solar-powered which provides enough energy for a simple five-LED display. Two pairs of red LEDs at the top and bottom of the display indicate to the grower that moisture levels are too high or too low. When a single green LED is lit in the center, it shows the soil moisture is at an optimum level. The creators say the real-time information helps to produce a more precise irrigation programme so conserving water and in the longer-term highlights which growing areas need drainage.

Precision seeding in rice fields
Traditionally, small rice crops have been established by transplanting seedlings taken directly from a nursery. While transplanting allows accurate placement, it is labor intensive and a shortage of workers has made the method increasingly costly. The alternative has been to broadcast seed by hand, but establishment is patchy and losses to slugs, snails and birds can be high.

Now though inventors have developed a hand-drawn drill that can deliver seed more precisely. The drill has two large wheels on a fixed axle with a series of small, perforated drums attached along its 2.5m length. The drums are filled with germinated rice seed that drops through the perforations in neat rows as the axle rotates.

It is cheaper than a powered drill or transplanting and more precise than broadcasting which is influenced by wind. At 70kg/ha seed use is higher with the drill compared to transplanting (35kg/ha) but the one-man drill saves labor costs. Drilled crops can also mature up to 10 days earlier than transplanting where seedlings often suffer a growth-check or die off. Manufacturers like KSNM estimate a saving of a vital $50/ha is possible.

In-store spoilage sensor
Stored grain is prone to spoilage caused by moulds and fungal pathogens which multiply rapidly in warm, humid conditions. In some developing countries, the resulting losses of vital food and income have a huge impact on communities which are already facing hunger and poverty. However, continuous aeration that would combat the problem, is often prohibitively expensive or too labor intensive for small-scale farm operations. Equally, reacting after mould and fungal populations become visible, is often too late to prevent the spoilage occurring.

Researchers at product design company Ideo realized that changes in ambient temperatures and humidity were reliable indicators of an upcoming surge in fungal or mould growth. The company found that temperature and humidity sensors were readily available and cost as little as $4/unit. Sensors were housed in cheaply-constructed plastic shells and installed in grain stores. The monitoring units then warned growers that conditions were likely to promote spoilage, allowing them time to take any corrective action.

Mobile phone knowledge exchange
A third of the food produced by the 500 million small-scale producers is lost to pests and disease at a cost of $33bn to the economy. Many of these losses are caused by problems which are not difficult to surmount but persist because there is a lack of knowledge available in regions without access to the internet or fast, high-data, mobile phone networks. One charity has, however, found a low-tech way of getting agronomy advice to the farmers who need it.

The Wefarm system is based on text messages which can be sent and received by old technology handsets. More than 1.2 million African farmers are registered and can send out a text request for agronomy advice when their crops are not performing. Others on the network respond with solutions and the system has recorded a number of successes where crop failures have been averted. To date more than 2.1 million questions have been asked, 4.4 million answers have been offered and 180 million messages have been shared.

Fertilizer Deep placement
Fertilizer is still often spread by hand in poor regions of the world which leads to patchy coverage, uneven crop emergence, a waste of an expensive resource and an increased risk of environmental damage. Research has shown that up to 35% of applied Nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere or through surface water on farms where broadcasting is still carried out.

By contrast losses of just 4% were recorded when standard fertilizer granules were compacted into larger pellets and placed deeper in the soil at regular intervals.

US-based IFDC is one company which is advancing the technology in its work to improve agricultural production in 100 developing countries. The company explains that the deep placement system has two parts. The first is a simple mechanical compacter and the second is to place the pellets at depths of between 7-10cm. The pellet releases N as the soil moisture and warmth increases, coinciding more closely with the plant uptake patterns and reducing waste. Results have been dramatic with yield improvements of almost 20%.


Traditionally, small rice crops have been established by transplanting seedlings taken directly from a nursery, allowing accurate placement but it is labor intensive
we farm
More than 1.2 million African farmers are registered to WeFarm system and can send out a text request for agronomy advice when their crops are not performing
Growers in developing countries often have scarce resources