Kenya's Smart Greenhouse Texts When Your Tomatoes Need Watering

  • 2016-01-07
  • The Guardian

Best friends Brian Bett and Taita Ng’etich were enjoying their first semester in university – until they ran out of money.

“It’s always exciting starting college and there is so much going on so it was a lot of fun,” says Ng’etich. “But then we ran low on cash and we didn’t want to go back to our parents offering explanations. We decided to start a business instead to try and make our own money.”

The pair, who attended the same high school in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, initially considered setting up a movie shop “like every other teenager” but then decided on farming.

They pooled resources with four other students and went into a venture growing tomatoes in Loitokitok, a lush, wind-swept town at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanzania border.

The scheme ended in disaster when the entire crop was wiped out by floods, but that experience gave the pair the idea of setting up a greenhouse business – one that has won a string of awards and earned them an audience with President Barack Obama during the global entrepreneurship summit in Nairobi in July.

Built from local material – which drove down costs – the greenhouse is fitted with sensors that monitor temperature, humidity and soil moisture, and sends text messages to farmers alerting them to any changes they need to make to conditions inside.

The whole unit is run on solar power and the irrigation system can be turned off and on by text message, optimising water use and reducing waste, which is one of the main expenses for farmers.

The innovation grew out of the lessons the two students learned from their failed tomato growing business.

“We realised that we had exposed the crops to a lot of risks, including the vagaries of the changing weather,” says Ng’etich, who hopes to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Nairobi in August.