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  • 10.30.15

Ideo.org Is Bringing Low-Cost Precision Agriculture To Developing Countries

Even with simple, low-tech tools, farmers can drastically increase the productivity of their farms.

Ideo.org Is Bringing Low-Cost Precision Agriculture To Developing Countries

Precision agriculture allows farmers to maximize their yields while using the fewest amount inputs–water, fertilizer, seeds, for instance–possible. By mapping fields and deploying sensors, they can begin to understand their crops at a micro scale, conserve resources, and reduce impacts on the environment.

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Such techniques are now used widely in the U.S., particularly for high-value crops like wine. But really precision ag is only at the starting gate. There are still millions of acres in the developing world where farmers have a limited sense of what’s happening in their fields.

In March this year, Ideo.org started thinking about whether it could adapt digital sensors and GPS mapping for poorer countries. A group packed up a suitcase full of prototyping equipment and flew off to Kenya, Myanmar, and Tanzania for research. After talking with local people, they started coming up with product ideas. It’s now taking two of those forward in Myanmar, working with a local partner Proximity Designs.

“This technology is at a stage now where it is easy to prototype, and it’s cheap,” says Adam Reineck, design director at Ideo.org, the nonprofit arm of the well known design and innovation company. “A lot of this just wasn’t available two or three years ago.”

GPS Mapping

When Ideo.org asked farmers in Myanmar about the size of their fields, they would often give vague answers like “one or two acres.” They didn’t have a firm idea because they’d never mapped their land properly. Ideo.org’s solution: a smartphone app that maps fields as agents walk around the perimeter.

The app, which is still in development, gives total acreage, divides up land by crop type, and gives advice about the amount of inputs to use. “The idea is that you get a read-out of your acreage and recommendations for different inputs like seeds and fertilizer,” Reineck says. That means farmers aren’t relying on salespeople for guidance, and they’re not using more product than the soil can handle.

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Irrigation stick

Ideo.org also developed a moisture sensor to give farmers a quick sense of their water levels. Solar-powered, the stick is about one foot tall and comes with five LED lights. The top two indicate too much water; the bottom two, too little; and the middle one that the field has optimal moisture.

“It gives farmers real time feedback and allows them to adjust their irrigation schedule manually,” Reineck says.

It also helps Proximity’s extension agents to analyze farmland more accurately, assessing soil type, drainage rate and weather patterns. That, in turn, is important for arranging farm loans, and reducing the risks faced by farmers and funders.

IDEO.org

IDEO.org also explored a third product–a water-table sensor for rice paddy fields–but decided not to take it forward. Reineck says the float-in-a-tube device works, but that rice farmers in Myanmar don’t decide when to flood their fields–the government does–so there’t little incentive for farmers to monitor and conserve water themselves.

Ideo.org received project funding from Autodesk and the Wasserman Foundation. It’s now looking for further money to test the water sensor and GPS mapping further and bring them to market.

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None of the products is particularly hi-tech. The important thing, says Reineck, is to create something robust, easy-to-use, and adapted to local circumstances. IDEO.org places a high emphasis on “human centered” prototyping, as opposed to flying in somewhere and imposing a solution.

“We’ve come across a number of projects that show the potential of emerging technologies. We started prototyping them but then we found they weren’t a good fit,” Reineck says. “[Once in the field], we saw how simple and reliable this stuff had to be.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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