September 27, 2012 — A software company hopes to use cloud technology and precision agriculture to empower farmers to save on water and pesticides.
Centrivision is currently testing a website titled Abu Erdan and a mobile program that will offer farmers personalized information about their crops, namely when to plant and apply pesticides and fertilizers, and how to manage pest issues.
“If you look at the traditional way of agriculture in Egypt, you have the farmer, who harvests his crops according to the information he gets from his friends, families and neighbors,” says Centrivision founder Islam Khalil.
“You plant tomatoes on day X and irrigate them on day Y and apply fertilizers on day Z. Much of this information isn’t really suitable because in real life things are a lot more dynamic than that,” Khalil says. “You cannot model a crop on a static calendar efficiently. Variables in the soil and its ability to hold moisture is another variable, as is temperature, humidity and trans-evaporation.”
Even irrigation differs based on the variety, he adds.
The service relies on precision agriculture, an idea that uses information technology to help improve the quality of crops, while reducing the environmental impact. Precision farming relies on soil sampling, technologies like GPS, and other information management tools to improve agriculture production.
The idea is to assess soil and landscape types, weather and pest issues to boost crop yields and profits. All the farmer needs is a smartphone.
“We’ve developed it to be accessible over a smartphone, so it’s very visual and relies on a touch interface targeted toward Androids. These days, an Android can be as cheap as LE600, and you have a touch screen, GPS and the Internet. You don’t need an expensive iPhone or a complex device,” says Khalil.
Khalil is quick to admit the service will have little appeal for farmers in the Delta region who normally own only a small plot of land and have plenty of access to water resources. But he says the target consumers are farmers working on medium-scale farms in the desert.
About 25 percent of the country’s agricultural land is reclaimed desert plots, according to the American University in Cairo Desert Development Center. The government began to reclaim the country’s desert lands in the 1950s as part of efforts to ease Egypt’s high unemployment rate and reduce urban crowding.
Millions of farmers from the Nile Valley and Delta area have been resettled into desert farming communities. The government also ran programs to resettle university graduates and government employees whose companies have been privatized. Though the plots of land allotted in the Sahara Desert are much larger than plots in the Delta, the soil lacks nutrients and produces far less.
“There’s a real interest in medium-scale farmers, because their median education is higher than small farmers. Basically, these are people who have a higher level of education and are more tech-friendly. They are from a background that uses technology so the service’s interface isn’t completely foreign to them.”
Khalil says medium-scale farmers are more familiar with nearby large desert farms, which are more likely to utilize technology information when planning their growing seasons.
“All we’re doing is democratizing the technology so that more people have access to it,” he adds.
The service would also show the buying price of crops at wholesale markets in the covered areas, allowing farmers more transparency and the ability to get better profit from their crops.
“One of the problems Egyptian farmers face is transparency of price information with different crops at different markets, and the result is a very unhealthy structure where there’s a huge difference in terms of earning potential between two markets that are not very far apart in proximity,” he says. “So we have a component that allows users to see crop prices every day in different markets.”
Mobile technology use in agriculture is not new. In East Africa and India, SMS services have been set up to send daily alerts about market prices for crops.
Also in India, automated irrigation has been set up through mobile phones by a company called Nano Ganesh. Farmers simply call a number to turn on the irrigation system and call again to turn it off. Technologies like this have helped reduce water and energy waste in rural areas with limited resources.
Water scarcity remains an issue in desert farming. Many desert communities rely on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer to water their thirsty plants. Egypt shares the vast underground reservoir with Sudan, Chad and Libya. But as the resource becomes depleted, farms have been installing diesel pumps to help bring the water above ground — a costly endeavor.
“There’s an enormous amount of waste in agriculture in Egypt, as well as in pesticides and fertilizers,” says Khalil.
The overuse of water translates to higher diesel costs.
Khalil says, for example, that the optimum humidity rate for carrots is 80 percent. Anything more and you choke the plant with overwatering, anything less and you stress it.
“You want to maintain 80 percent humidity, but you can’t do that simply by following a calendar, you have to measure soil and moisture,” he explains.
The service should help reduce overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.
“It’s the same for pesticides. If the plant wants a drop, farmers give it a bucket. It isn’t useful. You’re wasting money, and you’re losing your compliance with international standards in regard to the amount of pesticide being used,” he says. “Over-irrigation mixed with too much pesticide also threatens to contaminate the groundwater.”
For now, precision agriculture is only used on large-scale, multinational farms that have the resources to monitor their crops closely.
“All we’re doing is taking technology that is very expensive and can only be used by large, elite farms and multinationals, and by putting it into cloud technology and selling it as a managed service, we can make it affordable and accessible to larger segments of farmers,” Khalil says.