SMART sensors measure soil health and send alerts
“The commercial agricultural moisture sensors and soil sensors were really expensive and they were also really antiquated technology. It felt like living in the Dark Ages.”
Like many transformational technologies, Edyn* started as a solution for one organisation — but then became a platform for many. “I actually built the first prototypes that became Edyn when I was in the field with re:char working in western Kenya,” Jason shared. His first organisation, re:char, needed a tool that would collect soil data so that the team could comparethe effect of their biofertiliser to that of others. They have had a hard time finding something that suited their needs.
The existing technologies were not quite right. “The commercial agricultural moisture sensors and soil sensors were really expensive and they were also really antiquated technology. They needed us to buy an old PC because they didn’t have USB connectivity or wireless connectivity. It felt like living in the Dark Ages.”
Dissatisfied with what the market had to offer, the re:char team decided to make their own. “We started experimenting with very simple, programmable microcontrollers and ended up building the first prototypes — mainly for our own internal use, just to keep track of these different trials. We then started getting a lot of interest from both farmers as well as agricultural NGOs in the area who said, ‘I have to keep track of field trials as well. I’m interested in this.’ And that was sort of how it was born.”
“Edyn is a smart sensor, a smart wireless sensor that measures soil moisture, soil nutrition, temperature, humidity and light, and streams all that data to the cloud.”
“Edyn is a smart sensor, a smart wireless sensor that measures soil moisture, soil nutrition,temperature, humidity and light, and streams all that data to the cloud,” Jason shares. “It’s a solar-powered device and sends all the collected information to our server. We process it and send data and recommendations to the user’s smartphone. We provide insights and guidance to farmers and small gardeners about how to improve their crop yield while using fewer resources.”
Once a farmer has the device, she places it in the soil where it will get sun. She connects it to the internet using her smartphone app and then, from there, all the interaction happens on her mobile device. When she’s interested in learning about the status of her crops, she can view the Edyn dashboard and get data on soil and weather conditions, as well as recommendations tailored to her specific crops. Moreover, when her crops need attention, Edyn will send her push notifications with the information that she needs to respond to: soil moisture is low, soil nutrition is low, etc.
Because this visual dashboard is so crucial, Edyn is currently available only on Android and iOS. “We feel that the user gets the best experience when they have a graphical interface. They get the richest data and the richest information.”
When asked why they don’t use SMS technology, Jason puts it simply: “You can’t look at the dominant technology today and build for that because, with hardware, the cycle time is really long. It really takes two years, at least, from idea to production to get a hardware product out there and manufactured so you really have to look 2 to 3 years down the line. We’ve seen how quickly the Android smartphone is being adopted in Africa and in the developing world. We really feel like it’s going to be the dominant platform for connecting people to the internet around the world.”
“There’s a theoretical potential to reduce water consumption by 50% without impacting yield.”
Edyn just sent out its first shipments of sensors earlier this year — a total of 3,200 devices to 2,300 consumers worldwide. “Our next production run is going to be about 13,500 devices and that’s when we’ll start to shift manufacturing over to China, where we can get the absolute best price on the hardware,” Jason explains. With a focus on home gardeners in the US and Europe and larger farms in the developing world, about 225 of the 3,200 devices are being sent to African commercial farmers.
Despite its pilot stage, Edyn has proved that its potential is astronomical. With its smart technology and automation, Edyn is able to reduce water consumption without impacting yield. “We’ve demonstrated up to 30%,” says Jason. “But there’s a theoretical potential to reduce water consumption by 50%.”
How is this possible? “Many growers rely on very inexact data collection methods. If you ask a lot of serious farmers: how do you know how much water you’re using for irrigation, they’ll reply ‘Well, I do the finger test. I stick my finger in the ground and see if it’s wet.’ The reality is you can’t tell the difference between say 70% or 80% water by using your finger. That could make a huge difference for your crops and for your water consumption.” With lower water consumption, Edyn helps farmers lower their costs, while also creating a more environmentally sustainable sector.
“We wanted to launch with as large of an order as possible so we could get our cost down, really drive down the bill of materials.”
To fund the initial product development, Edyn used the online, crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. “With hardware, there’s a huge economy of scale. In hardware, we call it the “BOM”, the bill of materials, that’s the cost of the actual device to manufacture,” Jason explains. “We wanted to launch with as large of an order as possible so we could get our cost down, really drive down the BOM — and we thought Kickstarter was the best place to get that high volume order.”
Each Edyn sensor is US$100, so the target audience for those who can afford such a price is home gardeners in the US and Europe and larger, commercial farms in developing countries. “Home users are one of the fastest growing agricultural markets,” Jason explains. “There are huge efficiencies in home and domestic agriculture.” For those in developing countries, “We are really targeting ten+ acres commercial farmers… who typically will farm half of their land for cash crops, and a quarter to half of their land for value-added crops to use in their own households or sell locally.”
As much as Edyn would like to support smallholder farmers, Jason adds, “These individuals are very cost-constrained and have a lot of other challenges.” Ultimately, Edyn — in its current form — is just not meant for them.
“As far as we know, this is the largest attempt to capture and quantify soil and agricultural data, to date.”
To further improve water efficiency, Edyn is currently developing the Edyn Water Value — an automated irrigation controller farmers can use to automate and control the irrigation of their crops remotely. “In addition to being aconvenience, the system also saves significant amounts of water because it’s actually giving your plants the right amount of water that they need at the right time of day,” Jason adds. The value is just tremendous.
With all of these sensors transmitting data to the Edyn server, Jason also imagines that Edyn can become a place to capture trends in both existing and emerging agricultural markets. “We have data from all over the world in our database and we’re able to quickly visualise and analyse trends. So we can look at that data by geographic location, or by crop, and see how someone growing kale in Kenya compares to someone growing kale in their backyard in San Francisco. We can see what techniques they are using that differ and also how they’re adapting to weather conditions that differ in those different regions. The data visualisation potential is really exciting. As far as we know, this is the largest attempt to capture and quantify soil and agricultural data, to date.”
ON THE HORIZON
“To really foster innovation and grow new ideas, the traditional funding structures need to change.”
In Jason’s mind, two fields are going to grow exponentially within the next five years: ICT and biofertilisers. “We have seen small cases, like the Smallholders Foundation in Nigeria, where a small bit of information about how to use resources more efficiently on the farm can have a massive impact. The potential of the smartphone to dramatically increase the bandwidth and the size of that pipe of information is incredible… and I think it will lead to an exponential increase in agricultural productivity.”
As environmental and economic sustainability begin to align, as well, Jason believes biofertilisersProduction will become invaluable. “They are more attuned to the soil, much more affordable than chemical fertilisers, and don’t have the same environmental impact. I think the space is going to grow dramatically.
The potential for the sector transformation is tremendous but Jason believes the traditional funding structures are going to have to shift for any of these innovative solutions to truly emerge. “The traditional funding sources for agricultural development have used the same models for 50 years. They don’t really support innovation, rather they support the continued growth of existing solutions. To really foster innovation and grow new ideas, that system needs to change.” Jason looks to Silicon Valley for inspiration: “New ideas are funded all the time and maybe 99 out of 100 fail, but the success of one out of 100 makes up for all the failures. I think that’s really the only model that works with innovation and I think it’s a model that will hopefully be increasingly adopted in the development and agricultural space as well.”
“If I could go back in time, I probably would have read every business book I could get my hands on.”
In the face of such exciting opportunities and large financial hurdles, how can a young person navigate the agro-entrepreneurship space? Jason recommends going down the grant funding route: “Investors are hesitant to invest without really seeing a path to liquidity or to an exit. But if you’re a young innovator, there are grant funding sources that will provide small amounts of seed capital to demonstrate your viability.”
Especially for those hardware-based solutions, Jason also suggests expanding your user base. “It’s really in your interest to think as big aspossible and create as wide a market for your solution or product as possible. Don’t limit in any way because, if you limit it, it obviously won’t be as big.”
For any entrepreneur, whether in the agricultural space or not, Jason advocates for more business savvy. “If I could have been a little more business-minded and a little — well, not a little less idealistic — still idealistic, but also just thought about building, growing and sustaining a business. I think that’s really important… Whether you’re a non-profit or a for-profit, it’s still a company, it’s still a venture. I’ve had to learn all of that by experience. But, if I could go back in time, I probably would have read every business book I could get my hands on.”