Dutch smart technologies boost the yield of Kenyan farmers

The agriculture sector in Kenya faces many challenges, increasing food security is amongst others challenging because of the large number of small scale farmers. Smart solutions that fit in the local context and are affordable can contribute to food security and lead to sustainable agricultural intensification. AgroCares, a Dutch company with a local branch in Kenya, has developed sensor technology to encourage a transition with small scale farmers from intuitive farming to fact based farming. By developing strong business models, AgroCares has managed to unlock key elements of how the Private Sector is able to contribute to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Interested in reading the Dutch version of this article? Click on the link

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Technology at work

The scanner AgroCares developed has a Near Infrared (NIR) sensor which is connected to an app using a smartphone (via Bluetooth). The app then connects to a calibration database in the cloud to convert the measurement into soil fertility classifications and to calculate the fertilizer recommendations using local settings. This data is then send back so that the farmer can make decisions based on fact rather than intuition. One of the reasons why this approach is succesful is because the approach has many advantages over existing methods of fertilizer recommendations. Existing methods are typically costly, time consuming and hard to access. AgroCares works with local partners who have a direct relation with the farmer and are involved in other services to support the farmer, next to soil testing

service providers are the key to farmers

To ensure that AgroCares reaches a vast number of farmers worldwide with data about nutrients in their soil, feed or crops they cooperate with local service providers, who use AgroCares sensor technology to offer fast, affordable and in the field soil testing and fertilization recommendations to their network of farmers. The business model is based on recurring airtime use. In short, the service provider buys an annual license to analyze an unlimited amount of samples (i.e. scans) and sells these analyses (if wanted with an additional margin to cover service costs and to make a profit). Results with this model showed that even with a small margin local provider can break even within a year.

The business model for the farmer is also rather straightforward. For instance, for a maize farmer in Kenya testing his soil and following the advice will be profitable already at a yield increase of 15 kg/ha (=±0.1% yield increase) . Currently (August 2018) about 80 Scanners are being used in Kenya. With these Scanners most farmers reported yield boosts of up to 300%. In other words, soil testing using the Scanner is profitable for farmers.

“The succes of the scanner can not only be attributed to the machine itself. Using the existing network of service providers and the way in which the sector is organized is crucial” Says Christy van Beek, chief agronomist/director SoilCares Foundation

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Challenges

Although the business models as well as the positive impacts on economic and agronomic performance are clear, AgroCares faces several challenges when it comes to upscaling. Christy explains that since the launch in Kenya in early 2017 AgroCares has learned that the selection of the service providers (i.e. the clients of AgroCares) is crucial and critical, not any client will do. Although the equipment can be operated without any knowledge of agronomy, the service provider needs to be a trustworthy partner to the farmers. Farmers will only consider buying soil-tests that use new technologies from a service provider they already know and trust. Next to this, the buy-in from local stakeholders (like county governments) is crucial, to build trust . Since this year AgroCares therefore organizes trainings and workshops to explain their activities. They have also created a Community of Practice (CoP) with all service providers to build an active network of clients. A simple whatsapp group of service providers who actively engage with each other. As there is hardly any competition as many farmers are still in need of soil testing this really helps.

"Innovation starts by intimately observing your customer"- Jeremy Gutsche

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Van Beek explains that they have grown from a start-up to a commercial company and have learned a lot from their first years of operation, during which the importance of an active network of knowledgeable clients has become very apparent.

“We have learned that, although the term innovation is widely embraced (especially by policy makers), most people need time to become acquainted with a new approach. To shorten the time of adoption, AgroCares has developed an annual cycle of activities: training, Community of Practice (CoP) meetings and county workshops”.

Introducing an innovation in Kenya is not an easy task. When AgroCares started in 2015 many saw us as a competitor to conventional soil testing laboratories. By now, it is recognized that it is a technology which can be applied in a laboratory and in the field, which is unique. AgroCares is currently working on MoUs with government organizations such as ICRAF and with KALRO to stimulate further distribution. The sales of scanners is picking up and farmers are sharing their enthusiastism, which is for Van Beek the most rewarding part of the work.

New apps have been developed to use the same devices (Scanner or Lab-in-a-Box) to for example also analyze nutrients in feed and leaf. The innovations of AgroCares show that contributing to the SDGs can go hand in hand with farmer empowerment and local business generation.

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©Agrocares

Further opportunities

The work of AgroCares underlines how difficult it may be to develop technologies or machines which are easily accepted in the Kenyan market. Thinking about how to make your product market-fit is one of the targets of the two studies will be completed in 2019. The studies will look at opportunities for the Dutch private sector when it comes to ICT solutions and Climate Smart Agricultural Solutions and offer tips on how to make these solutions market-fit.

Kenya is a country with infinitive business opportunities for the agriculture sector and offers chances for entrepreneurs to come with innovations that at the same time support food security. We are supporting companies to share their solutions and innovations with us. Do you also have an innovative solution and would you like to share your story or do you have questions? Send an email to nai-lnv@minbuza.nl. For questions to AgroCares Kenya you can contact the Kenyan office via +254728-970-136