How data, cheap sensors and Android could be a game changer for rural farmers

Over the past four years as Jason Aramburu sold kilns, which turn plant waste into bio charcoal, to Kenyan farmers, he became something of an expert on one of the key things that Kenyan farmers lack: data. “There’s very little data anywhere,” says Aramburu, founder and CEO of startup Re:char, over a breakfast interview on Thursday, as Re:char chief technology and resident Maker Luke Iseman nods in agreement.

For example, rural Kenyan farmers can easily spend 30 percent of their income on fertilizer, but 80 percent of that fertilizer can be wasted because there is little data collected about the best places and times to use it. The lack of info isn’t just from the farmer’s perspective. Aramburu says when he met the CEO of a major fertilizer company recently, he asked him what he knew about his customers — his response: “very little.”

Re:char CTO Luke Iseman (L) and founder/CEO Jason Aramburu (R) showing off an early prototype of SoilIQ
Re:char CTO Luke Iseman (L) and founder/CEO Jason Aramburu (R) showing off an early prototype of SoilIQ

A soil data cloud in the sky

The two young entrepreneurs latest project emerged from this black hole of information. Working within French telco giant Orange’s first accelerator program, called Orange Fab, Re:char plans to build a $5 plug-in device, called SoilIQ, for an Android phone that can read the moisture levels in soil. During our interview, Iseman takes a very early prototype of the device out of a pouch and shows me how it plugs into the Android phone and taps into the phone’s computing power to detect moisture levels between two screws.

Down the road such a gadget could be developed to pick up other soil data, like fertilizer-level readings. Iseman, an avid gardener, schools me on NPK — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — which he says are the holy grail of fertilizer readings. When SoilIQ is a commercial product, farmers could buy the gadget to take these types of readings, and enhance their farming productivity and the efficiency of their fertilizer use.

Re:charBut the real value of such a system will likely be in the data collection, and the data analytics and services. The hourly and daily micro readings, which are coded with GPS data, could be used to create a cloud-based location data map of the quality and details of the land. This information could be used to launch data-focused services for both farmers, fertilizers companies, government groups, and others.

Re:char envisions using the data to launch a subscription service for farmers that can alert the farmers to the most fertile land, or even if there’s the danger of crop disease anywhere in the region (maize rot is a huge problem in rural Kenya). Fertilizer companies could use such data to offer better products to farmers, and potentially learn more about the end farmer customer (fertilizer can change hands ten times in Kenya until it reaches the person who will use it, says Aramburu).

Such land data could even be valuable outside of the farming communities. A massive data soil map in the cloud could help determine things like land values, or land ownership issues.

SoilIQ is part internet of things, part sustainability, and part data analytics. The entrepreneurs are actually very focused on developing tools that encourage the more efficient use of resources, which could (and should in my opinion) be the next-generation of cleantech focus.

The core concept also reminds me of what Safecast has been trying to do with its grass roots nuclear radiation sensors and data mapping in Japan. Safecast is bringing that concept to air pollution in L.A., too.

Orange interest

For telco Orange, which has a substantial presence in Kenya, such a system could help them increase mobile data use among customers. The Android devices obviously send the data to the cloud over the cellular networks. And Android phones — as Google announced this week at — are being used by 900 million people globally.

Google I/O 2013 Android activations

But potentially even more important is the branding involved. As Orange’s Executive Director of Business Services, Vivek Badrinath, told me in an interview at the Orange Fab event on Monday night, the mobile phone is often times the first branded product that a customer in a developing country has. That brand in turn has a unique ability to transition into offering core services, like mobile banking, and credit.

Orange has a mobile payment system, Orange Money, that is growing nicely and Re:char could plug into it for its planned services. And if SoilIQ becomes a killer app for the bottom of the pyramid, Orange would have a key position in it. Orange is interested enough in Re:char’s new idea that it not only brought the company into its accelerator program, but is investing in its angel round.

Re:char hopes to close an angel round by the end of the program, and later this year raise a series A round. By the end of the three months, Re:char also plans to have its soil moisture-reading gadget developed enough to move it into production.

If you’re a backyard composter or gardener — like Re:charge CTO Iseman — you’re probably wondering if you can get your hands on SoilIQ one day. Aramburu and Iseman tell me that they’d like to make it available in the U.S., too, so the gardening hobbyist could collect their own data.

Clearly, the team is in the very early stages of making SoilIQ, so a lot of their plans will hinge on these next few months. They plan to keep running the kiln bio charcoal business, and think SoilIQ could even help grow that business, too. They also might split the businesses in two down the road.

Ultimately if they can deliver a simple, easy to use, and cheap device, and convince Kenyan farmers to start using it, they could be on their way to unleashing data from Kenya’s rural landscape.