Rwanda: Drone to Monitor Crops in Northern Province

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An aerial drone to monitor crops for Irish potato farmers in Northern Province was launched, yesterday, in Musanze District.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), through its Private Sector Driven Agricultural Growth Project (PSDAG), is partnering with AgriLift to pilot the drone-based crop monitoring technology.

It will serve 2,000 potato farmers affiliated with 20 potato cooperatives in the Imbaraga Cooperative Federation, located in Nyabihu, Burera and Musanze districts.

With USAID support, the drone takes overhead images of growing crops at specific intervals. The images are then analysed with an open-source computer model of plant growth, which was specifically developed for potato farms.

The drone technology can identify the optimal maturity of potato plants for farmers, and can also spot nutrient deficient or diseased crops.

AgriLift's goal is to use 'the eye in the sky' to provide local farmers and agribusinesses with rapid information on their crops, allowing them to take corrective measures almost immediately.

At the beginning of the September-January planting season, AgriLift conducted its first drone test flights in Musanze. To-date, 242 plots of farmland under four cooperatives have been registered for the technology.

Speaking at the launch, USAID country mission director, Marcia Musisi-Nkambwe, said, "It's our hope that this aerial monitoring technology will directly increase the income of small-scale Rwandan farmers. USAID is proud to be a significant partner in this achievement."

Beyond small-scale farmers

While AgriLift will continue to demonstrate the valuable use of advanced crop monitoring for small-scale farmers, the benefits won't stop there, the firm said.

Officials noted that the real-time Irish potato crop data is also a powerful analytical tool for private sector buyers, agricultural equipment dealers and financial services providers.

Matt Gantz, managing director of AgriLift, said the new technology would provide farmers with an innovative tool that can be used to better understand the challenges they face.

He said the first step is demonstrating the value of the technology and ensuring that it can be useful to farmers and farmer associations and cooperatives.

Rwanda, Gantz noted, is a primarily agrarian economy, and increasing yields not only benefits the farmers but the overall economy.

"Drone technology can potentially reduce costs associated with constant crop monitoring and post-harvest losses and can be useful throughout the value chain, not only to farmers, but to processors, traders, input dealers, financial service providers and even government," said Gantz.

"With AgriLift's technology, Imbaraga has access to advanced geo-spatial crop monitoring solutions that allow them to determine the best times to collect their harvest with an intuitive platform that makes understanding information easy," he said.

"There aren't many projects like this in East Africa. We hope that it will open the door for new apps and services that focus on the plot-level."

The cost of the drone is about $2,300 with all of its flight components, he said.

Officials, locals upbeat

Officials and farmers welcomed the initiative, saying it was always hard to cultivate without scientific knowledge on the type and the state of the soil, the state of crops being cultivated, as well as the quality and quantity of fertilisers to apply on a given plot.

"This technology will help us improve our farming practices, unlike previously, we will be able to get informed about the state of the soil we cultivate on as well as updates on which seeds to plant and which fertilisers to apply," said Perpetue Usekeyemariya, a farmer from Nyange Sector, Musanze District.

"As the government embarked on the Crop Intensification Programme (CIP) where land is consolidated and improved seeds are used, the new technology was long overdue as it brings ICT in agriculture. We had challenges of not knowing the type and quality of soil as well as quality and quantity of fertilisers to apply," said Jean Claude Izamuhaye, head of Rwanda Agriculture Board in Northern Province.

"What is needed is to provide all findings and share them with farmers as this will boost the yields at a farmer level as well as country level," he added

Flight costs vary greatly depending on the service provided, client, total area analysed, topography and other factors, according to officials.

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