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Changing the game of combatting crop pests and diseases

As a child growing up in the lush lands of Nyandarua Country in Central Kenya, Esther Wanjiru Kimani would never have thought that she would be at the forefront of helping the farming world in her adulthood. Wanjiru founded Farmer Lifeline Technologies in 2019 to help farmers get ahead of crop pests and diseases using innovation so that they (farmers) could improve food security and earn more income.  

“I grew up on the slopes of Aberdare, where my family – just like other members of the community – relied heavily on agriculture as a source of income. Much later in life, I noticed that almost half of our crops were being destroyed due to delayed identification of pests and diseases,” she says. Wanjiru credits the birth of Farmer Lifeline Technologies to her Computer Science Degree and her dedicated team throughout her life.  In Kenya, insect pests can cause yield losses of up to 91 per cent, according to agricultural promotion firm CABI. Smallholders’ awareness of the threats posed by these insects is low because they are small and cryptic, whilst local entomologists cannot easily identify them. Pesticides are therefore misused, killing other beneficial organisms such as natural enemies and pollinators, creating more pest problems. 

Wanjiru says this is the problem they have stepped in to solve. “In 2020, we tested our patented device which assists farmers detect crop pests and diseases in a timely manner. Our first revenues began streaming in, in 2021, with our first version of the device. We have since continuously worked on our current device capable of scanning 600 meters from our previous 100 meters. Our plan is to increase the device’s strength to 1.5 kilometers,” Wanjiru says. Wanjiru explains that the device is powered by solar with a GSM antenna. “The device is installed with a camera which has scanners and captures images of crops in the farm continuously.”  

In the event of a pest or disease, it notifies the farmer through an SMS on the mobile phone. The most innovative part of the ‘surveillance’ programme is that the text message sent to the farmer identifies the crop on the farm, and the pest or disease. It does not stop there, for the message further recommends to the farmer the type of chemical and quantity they should apply.  Wanjiru mentions that Farmer Lifeline Technologies conserves the environment by only recommending affordable, health-friendly, and carbon-negative farm chemicals and fertilizers that the farmers should use.  

“That way, we are helping farmers adapt to climate change through behavior change. That is, they are changing from what they have been using to adapt to something new, but with lower carbon emissions. Annually, 9.8 billion tons of carbon are emitted from the agricultural sector due to use of synthetic fertilizers and farm chemicals.” 

The main customer of Farmer Lifeline Technologies is usually the smallholder farmer. Wanjiru and her team have devised a way to ensure the farmers she works with can afford the device. “We are changing the game. Farmers can lease our device for just a hundred Kenya shillings (around one dollar) per month. That way, all farmers can afford the service,” Wanjiru says with a smile and then goes back in time. “Before we started working with our customers, they would be forced to purchase a smartphone, download applications for scanning, or even call an agriculturalist – who would be overwhelmed by the work around – or rather have a drone fly over their farms. But with our device and our leasing model, things have changed for the better. Our device is not only cost effective, but it is also on the farm twenty-four hours a week. One device can serve two to three farmers at once.” 

A Mist of Opportunities  

Peter Njau, one of the farmers using the device, said. “They have been helping me map out my farm so that it tells me what it wants. Thanks to the device, I have been able to know the kind of pests affecting my crops – even from when they are little, and the kind of chemicals and fertilizer I should use.” He added that Farm Line Technologies have been helping him anticipate rain patterns.  

Further exploring how the device works, Wanjiru expounds that the large amount of collected information is usually collected onto a data dashboard with identified pests from different regions. The Farmer Lifeline Technologies compares the methods farmers were previously using against the firm’s recommendations, thus enabling the organisation to set a target of the amount of carbon they can save.  

The company has ambitious goals but lacked funding and mentorship. 

Early in 2023, Farm Line Technologies was one of the sixteen start-ups selected to take part in the EIT-Climate KIC’s Adaptation and Resilience (A&R) ClimAccelerator for Africa , the second African-wide accelerator programme to scale up climate solutions. The initiative is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland (Irish Aid). The programme was implemented by two partners in Africa, Kenyan sustainability consulting company, KCIC Consulting Limited (KCL) and Senegalese based enterprise support organization, Concree SAS, between January and May 2023.  The beneficiaries received technical assistance and a small grant to support their climate solutions. 

Wanjiru admits that the training programme helped her know how to run a business and create greater impact. “I heard about KCL and the climate accelerator programme through a group of fellow entrepreneurs. We also need peer-to-peer learning with fellow entrepreneurs so that we can figure out how to overcome obstacles. Access to mentors is important, because one of the things that we really need as entrepreneurs is guidance,” Wanjiru said.  Wanjiru believes that bringing governmental and non-governmental organizations abroad is key for Farm Line Technologies to reach farmers in other regions and countries.  The company will use some of the funding to overcome the challenges they face. Wanjiru cites foggy and misty areas as one of the main challenges her start-up faces.  

“We are working towards adding fog lights to counter the mist. “We have requested support from several cooperatives to spread our innovation to other Kenyan counties – not just Central Kenya and also the African continent.”  She also wants to enroll more farmers. “We are hoping to reach one million farmers by 2026. These kinds of goals can only be possible with more scaling and priceless support from visionary partners like EIT-Climate KIC and KCL.”