Drones unlocking rural farming

Astral Aerial Business Development Manager Kush Gadhia

Astral Aerial Business Development Manager Kush Gadhia demonstrates the use of drones in farming on March 12, 2021. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

 Just what can a drone do? While many millennials believe that the primary function of a drone is shooting music videos and movies, more economically transformational uses exist.

Situated adjacent to Karuna Close in Nairobi’s innovation hub of Westlands is Astral Aerial, a drone firm that is steadily helping farmers across the country record higher yields.

A spacious room has been dedicated to the training of commercial drone operations, from the regular ones used in aerial photography to large ones that can spray foliar fertilizer and pesticides on vast acres of crop plantations.

Since its clearance from Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), the company has traversed 16 counties in its mission to unlock agricultural potential in rural Kenya, while contributing to efforts towards achieving food security.

“We aim to reach every county in Kenya,” Kush Gadhia, business development manager at Astral Aerial told the Nation during a site visit.

A projector presentation shows how the firm has deployed Big Data to advise farmers in remote areas on better farming practices, tremendously helping them make quick decisions that guard them against low yields and post-harvest losses.

Clear photos

The drones, Kush explains, help them take clear photos and videos of farms from the sky, which are then analysed using geo-analytics software to determine crop health, soil acidity, recommend required pesticides and fertilizer while predicting crop yields.

“In Murang’a county, we were able to deploy the technology to count thousands of avocado trees that would be tedious to do manually, while also detecting which ones had poor health,” head of operations at the firm Geoffrey Nyaga said.

In a Githunguri tea farm, the drone images seen by the Nation can vividly indicate that crops at the middle of sections separated by paths used for spraying pesticides have yellow leaves and stunted growth.

This, according to Mr Nyaga, shows that such crops are never reached by manual spraying machines that appear to be short, and only manage to spray at the edges.

“This is where drone spraying comes in. Your foliar or insecticide can reach every plant while also telling you which plants are weak,” says Mr Gadhia.

He adds that using a combination of solutions for different farmers in the country, the firm has served Nairobi, Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Meru, Nyeri, Machakos, Kitui, Kericho, Bungoma, Kilifi, Narok, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Laikipia and Samburu counties.

“We have trained farmers in Nzoia, sprayed pesticides on wheat farms in Narok, inspected farms in Machakos and Meru, counted livestock in Samburu and did mapping in the rest of the counties. Farmers part with Sh700 per acre to get such services,” he illustrates.

The company has in the past been contracted to fight the desert locust menace that threatened food security last year, while also crossing borders to Ethiopia on a land mapping mission.

With volumes of traditional data lying in government silos, Kenya has had a huge challenge in using data plugging in frontier technologies such as Big Data analytics and Artificial Intelligence to build solutions, even as the world embraces.

Accurate data

This, Mr Nyaga, says is a hurdle the company is helping to eliminate through the recording of accurate and current data.

“Our efforts have led to the collection of clean data for use by government agencies to make decisions on diverse demographics. The government wants to know farmer distribution centres, land size, market linkage zones,” said Mr Nyaga.

Astral has also utilised drone technology to inspect assets in the real estate industry, collecting crucial data for use by investors, insurers and valuers to make decisions regarding property management.

“We have also mapped data on telecom towers, 5G base stations, water towers and power lines. This has helped our clients improve services for their customers,” Mr Gadhia said.

The firm conducts a two-week drone training programme, where trainees pay Sh150,000.

“This, in particular, demonstrates that Kenya is keen on aviation innovations. Drone operations have created innovations that did not exist before,” said KCAA Director General Gilbert Kibe.