‘Internet of Things’ may help Tanzanian farmers boost coffee production

The ‘Internet of Things’ has many uses, but who would have thought coffee production was one of them?

A unique coalition of Tanzanian espresso farmers are now poised to use this novel innovation to boost yields and operate more sustainably amid climate change challenges.

This approach, guided by US communications technology conglomerate Cisco Systems Inc, and Italian plant and technology researchers, has been termed economically beneficial to farmers, the planet, and coffee lovers.

Dubbed the ConSenso Project, it allows farmers in the developing world, where water is increasingly scarce due to climate change, to achieve optimal growing conditions, striking a perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.

“Climate change has led to shorter rainy seasons for growers in Tanzania”, says Dr Camilla Pandolfi of PNAT, a Florence-based think-tank of plant scientists and technology designers.

“As a result, they are resorting to irrigation to ensure proper flowering and ripening of the beans, which requires significant water usage.”

In this, the technology is assisting them to determine optimal irrigation times and amounts, among other practices.

A key example is Tunasikia Farm in Utengule, Tanzania. It has been equipped with 65 solar-powered Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that gather extensive data on soil, sunlight, climate, carbon capture, insects, and the plants’ electrical energy fields, which can indicate their health and general requirements.

After an initial analysis on site, the data — collected over the past six months — is transmitted to Florence for further examination, supported by Cisco’s networking, security, and cloud technologies.

 

A scalable solution

According to Angelo Fienga, Cisco’s director of sustainable solutions for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), the solution is addressing many envisioned challenges and advantages.

“One of these is preserving the soil and water while helping farmers grow their businesses sustainably since the social and economic aspects are highly relevant,” says Fienga.

Tanzania is one of the top 20 coffee-producing countries worldwide. Supporting the farmers in overcoming challenging conditions is good for both their success and the nation’s.

Additionally, the technologies can be expanded and adapted in other regions. “Many developing nations cultivate coffee in Africa, South and Central America, South-East Asia, and

beyond”, says Massimo Battaglia, the coffee research leader at Accademia del Caffè Espresso in Florence, a ConSenso partner. “We aim to introduce this type of solution globally”, notes Battaglia.

How the system works

Cisco LoRaWAN, a radio-transmission technology known for its long-range data transmission and low energy use, is one of the solutions facilitating the connection of sensors and enabling local preliminary data analysis.

Cisco’s cloud and LTE technologies enhance the secure transfer of data to and from Florence. Additionally, Cisco Webex facilitates real-time, secure collaboration between team members in Tanzania and Florence.

“The technology allows us to interpret the language of plants”, notes Michele Festuccia, senior systems engineer manager for Cisco, Italy. “This is incredible, and it’s an ideal solution to help farmers achieve greater sustainability and success”.

Simultaneously, the research is investigating how coffee plants can sequester carbon dioxide (CO2), preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.

Festuccia says: “In addition to other global reforestation initiatives, we believe that coffee plants can play a crucial role in addressing climate change”.

Capturing carbon

Pandolfi thinks that coffee plants, combined with strategically selected shade trees, could be effective in capturing carbon, although further research is required.

“We are working on our models and dashboard to monitor carbon”, she explained, adding: “While we have some initial estimates, this aspect will be a fascinating outcome of the project. Our goal is to show how coffee farming can sequester CO2 and aid in removing it from the atmosphere”.

The ConSenso Project offers a wide range of opportunities – from supporting coffee growers, to sequestering carbon, to combating climate change.

As Battaglia notes, the collaboration is a strong combination of partners. “We possess expertise in coffee”, he says, adding: “We have the financial aspect, the technology of sensors, and Cisco’39 network and cloud technology. Most importantly, we all share the same commitment. Together, it’s an ideal partnership”.

Much excitement is expected in June when the initial months of data insights will be fully processed and shared, along with the upcoming stages of the project.

“The researchers aim to gather data from three complete growing seasons to truly understand the plants”, says Festuccia.

 

Further advancements

Fienga is optimistic of the potential achievements with further advancements, such as artificial intelligence.

“With our Cisco technologies and connectivity, we can move large volumes of data”, he said, noting: “AI, when trained effectively, can uncover insights from data that humans might miss. This is relevant anywhere there is a significant amount of data, including data from plants”.

Another major objective is to extend these solutions beyond coffee, particularly as climate change disrupts agriculture in both developing and developed regions.

“Tracking plant needs can benefit other crops as well”, Pandolfi notes, adding: “As we are based in Italy, our focus is on olive oil production and wine, but these are just two examples. The system could be trained on the biophysical parameters of other crucial crops”.

And as Battaglia quips: “We simply need to listen to what the plants are telling us.”

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