• 3 min read

AI & IoT Insider Labs: Helping transform smallholder farming

From smart factories and smart cities to virtual personal assistants and self-driving cars, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are transforming how people around the world live, work, and play.

From smart factories and smart cities to virtual personal assistants and self-driving cars, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are transforming how people around the world live, work, and play.

But fundamentally changing the ways people, devices, and data interact is not simple or easy work. Microsoft’s AI & IoT Insider Labs was created to help all types of organizations accelerate their digital transformation. Member organizations around the world get access to support both technology development and product commercialization, for everything from hardware design to manufacturing to building applications and turning data into insights using machine learning.

Here’s how AI & IoT Insider Labs is helping one partner, SunCulture, leverage new technology to provide solar-powered water pumping and irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in Kenya.

Affordable irrigation for all

African farmer standing in field with basket of picked crops using Microsoft's AI and IoT Insider Labs technology.

Kenyan smallholdings face some of the most challenging growing conditions in the world. 97 percent rely on natural rainfall to support their crops and livestock—and the families that depend on them. But just 17 percent of the country’s farmland is suitable for rainfed agriculture. Electricity is unavailable in most places and diesel power is often financially out of reach, so farmers spend hours every day pumping and transporting water. This limits them to low-value crops like maize and small yields, all because they lack the resources to irrigate their crops. Additionally, irrigation technologies have an important role to play in reducing the impact agriculture has on the earth’s freshwater resources, especially in Africa.

SunCulture, a 2017 Airband Grant Fund winner, believed sustainable technology could make irrigation affordable enough that even the poorest farmers could use it without further aggravating water shortages. The company set out to build an IoT platform to support a pay-as-you-grow payment model that would make solar-powered precision irrigation financially accessible for smallholders across Kenya.

How SunCulture’s solution works

SunCulture’s RainMaker2 pump combines the energy efficiency of solar power with the effectiveness of precision irrigation, making it cheaper and easier for farmers to grow high-quality fruits and vegetables. Using the energy of the sun, the SunCulture system pulls water from any source—lake, stream, well, etc.—and pumps it directly to the farm with sprinklers and drip irrigation.

This cutting-edge solution combines ClimateSmart™ solar and lithium-ion energy storage technology with cloud-based remote monitoring and optimization software developed with support from AI & IoT Insider Labs. It’s a powerful platform that makes it simple and cheap to deploy off-grid energy and connected solutions.

Farmers get the information they need to make good irrigation decisions at scale, without the costs involved in sending agronomy experts into the field. How? SunCulture processes a steady flow of sensor data, like soil moisture, pump efficiency, solar battery storage, and other factors, that is analyzed within Microsoft Azure’s cloud environment. This sensor data is combined with data from SunCulture’s network of 2,000 hyperlocal weather stations to leverage Azure machine learning tools and provide simple, real-time, precision irrigation recommendations directly to the farmer via text messaging (SMS).
The platform also enables real-time locking and unlocking of devices that makes the pay-as-you-grow model feasible. The platform is smart enough to shut off pumps automatically when power levels are getting low on a cloudy day, or when optimal irrigation thresholds are reached.

How farmers are benefiting from SunCulture

SunCulture’s pay-as-you-grow revenue model allows farmers to make small, monthly payments until they own their precision sensor-based irrigation system outright, empowering even the region’s poorest smallholder farmers to take control of their environment.

On average, SunCulture customers enjoy a 300 percent increase in crop yields and a 10x increase in annual income. Farmers with livestock double their milk yield, earning an extra $3.50/day in income from milk alone. The 17 hours per week they used to spend moving water manually is now directed to better tending their crops and livestock. At a price point of $1.25/day for the RainMaker2 with ClimateSmart™, a farmer’s investment is recouped quickly, and profit starts flowing from increased agricultural productivity.

Download SunCulture’s case study to learn more.