Over 70% of Sub-Saharan Africans work in agriculture, but the sector is faced with challenges such as a heavy reliance on rain, and outdated farming technologies. Over 80% of farmers struggle to manage their irrigation systems and their water use appropriately.
A few years ago, Brian Bett and Taita Ng’etich, students at the University of Nairobi, decided to make a little extra money for schooling by farming tomatoes. Unfortunately, they realized the risks associated with reliance rain water when their crop was destroyed by floods. However, the experience gave them an idea: what if they could build greenhouses to protect their crops, and irrigate only when needed?
They built their own successful greenhouse, and soon began to receive requests from other farmers to help them do the same. They decided to start a business, called Illuminum Greenhouses, to address the issue of over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture.
Inexpensive and Local
Illuminum’s greenhouses are built inexpensively from local materials and are fitted with sensors that measure temperature, humidity, and soil moisture. The sensors monitor for optimal growing conditions, and send text messages to farmers to alert them when they need to make changes inside the greenhouse. For example, farmers receive a text message when their crops get too dry or when the temperature inside the greenhouse gets too hot. They can reply back via text to turn on the irrigation system or open the flaps in the greenhouse.
Farmers can also send a text message to query on the conditions in their greenhouse at any time. The system is smart enough to take action on its own if the farmer is away from their mobile phone and does not respond to an alert within 30 minutes. The greenhouse will automatically start irrigating crops and stop when moisture is restored. The entire greenhouse unit also runs on solar power, enabling it to work in remote areas. Water usage, one of the biggest expenses for greenhouse farmers, is drastically reduced.
The smallest greenhouse available from Illuminum measures 6 x 21 metres and costs Sh50,000 (approximately US$500). Farmers who have purchased their greenhouse have been able to fully recoup the costs within their first harvest. Additionally, the data collected by the sensors is updated to an online server and stored for a year, allowing farmers to view greenhouse conditions in aggregate and plan for optimal growing times in future seasons.
Co-founders Bett and Ng’etich say that this has resulted in a 70% increase in production and 60% increase in income for over 300 farmers in Kenya so far. Illuminum Greenhouses has also won a slew of awards, including Second Best Start-Up at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit, funding from the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and top prize in the Seedstars Nairobi competition.
Illuminum Greenhouses will soon participate in the global Seedstars competition in Geneva, Switzerland in February 2016, where they will vie for a US$1.5 million prize. Bett and Ng’etich have already scoped out other countries in Africa and believe there is a widespread need for their product. They hope to start distributing greenhouses on a franchise model across Africa in early 2016. Overall, their vision is to enable smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to access modern farming technologies, have more control over their crops and livelihoods, and improve both their productivity and their incomes.