Farming off the grid: How IoT helps remote communities grow more with less

IoT, drip irrigation and solar panels help communities not connected to the power grid or regular water supplies grow their own food.

An IoT solution isn't the first idea that comes to mind when you're standing in the African heat, thinking of ways to empower a village. But that's exactly what happened.

Brandi DeCarli and Scott Thompson had been building a Youth Empowerment Center from a modified shipping container in Kisumu, Kenya, as part of the UN Habitat Program. While doing this work, they realized that the local community lacked basic necessities, such as access to fresh and healthy food. They thought, why not use a modified shipping container to provide a plug-and-play farming unit?

Thus was born Farm From A Box (FFAB), a social enterprise based in San Francisco. African refugee camps, remote Indian villages and drought-affected communities in California all face the same challenge: how to grow food sustainably in a remote area that's off the power grid and isn't connected to a regular water supply.

IoT enabled off-the-grid farming for remote communities 

The answer came in a box

Shipping containers are easy to transport. They're huge (40 x 8 x 9.5 feet), making them ideal for storing seeds, farming supplies and equipment. They're rugged and built to last for years, and they're affordable, costing around $5,000 for a used one.

With the farm structure in place, DeCarli and Thompson worked on the other systems needed for a functioning farm. They decided to partner extensively to take advantage of the great work being done in sustainable farming. They selected leaders in the field from across the globe: Grundfos water pumps and SMA solar technology from Germany, along with Netafim drip irrigation systems from Israel. Solar panels are mounted on the roof of the container to power the equipment, along with high-capacity batteries and inverters. One FFAB system contains all the equipment and systems needed to grow enough food to feed 150 people on two acres of land. 

IoT enabled off-the-grid farming for remote communities

Sensors & Data Analytics

Building the Farm-From-A-Box and transporting it to the farming site is just half the challenge. Growing crops under harsh conditions requires creative thinking and careful analytics. What should be grown? When is the best time to plant? How much and how often they should be watered? How do you train the local community to farm with state of the art tools?

IoT provides the missing link in helping maximize both crop yields and the local farming skills. Sensors at the farm measure and report the soil conditions, moisture, temperatures and crop growth to a communication hub inside the Farm-From-A-Box. This data is transmitted to the cloud via a cellular connection where it's analyzed to develop planting, irrigation and fertilization schedules. Farming expertise and support is offered remotely through tools such as Cisco WebEx.

Paul Arnpriester, one of the leaders of the non-profit division at CDW, is always on the lookout for innovative ways to use technology for good. From his work with Nethope (a group of the largest non-profits and tech innovators in the world), Paul was aware of the need to help remote communities become self sufficient.

"Who would have thought that a shipping container could be so useful? Farm-From-A-Box's IoT based farming system has enormous potential," he said.

Sometimes thinking outside the box starts inside a shipping container! 

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