Summary: Kadeghe Fue is an iAGRI-sponsored scholar working toward his master’s degree in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Florida. Kade earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and information technology from the University of Dar es Salaam prior to working as an instructor for those subjects at Sokoine University’s Mazimbu campus. Kade’s iAGRI sponsorship allowed him to begin his master’s degree in 2012 at the University of Florida where he studied automation and information systems. Kadeghe is also a recent recipient of the Norman Borlaug Fellowship. His current research investigates the potential for solar-powered, fully-automated drip irrigation technology to increase horticultural productivity in Tanzania and is in the final stages of testing at Sokoine University in Morogoro.
Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.
Automating Tanzania’s Horticultural Future Through Solar Powered Drip Irrigation
The experimental horticulture plot didn’t look like much on an overcast Wednesday morning in mid-February. It certainly didn’t look like the future of Tanzanian agriculture. Most of the 38-square meter plot, which sits at the edge of a flat agriculture plain that abruptly rises into the steep, often cloud-flanked Uluguru Mountains beyond, lay dormant. Only a few weeds sprouted up here and there from the deep red-orange fertile soil that the region around Morogoro is known for.
The plot was crisscrossed by a tidy series of black lines that were of a few different diameters, which partitioned the land into small rectangles. Looming about 20 feet above our heads was a wooden tower and an ascending ladder that led up to a black plastic water reservoir, identical to the ones used to supply water to homes and businesses. From the reservoir, several black tubes descended to the ground before spreading out, giving the whole apparatus the appearance of an octopus on wooden stilts. Nearby, a bare-footed field technician wearing rolled-up black trousers and a well-worn, faded, red Barcelona football jersey, used a hoe to till a section of soil.
“There’s nothing planted right now,” said Kadeghe Fue. “We’re in between trials,” he explained while manipulating his cell phone. He stood before a head-high white control box, encased in a protective metal cage. Its open door exposed a small circuit board, a digital display, a keypad and some wires. Two apparatuses appearing to be sensors of some kind protruded from the cage, one a white cylindrical device about the size of a water bottle, and the other, a smaller, white rectangular box affixed to the top.
Kadeghe was demonstrating that from a laptop, or in this case his mobile phone, he can download data and program the control box, which regulates his research plot’s fully-automated drip irrigation system. The tank that towered above us supplies the water that will be released to the drip lines according to a pre-programmed schedule, and solar panels generate the small amount of electricity needed to power the system’s electronics.
Kadeghe appeared at ease demonstrating the system’s wireless capabilities, as he should following a year of studying similar automated systems at the University of Florida as an iAGRI-sponsored master’s student. In the States, Kadeghe would not appear out of place programming an automated drip irrigation system because such devices are widespread and have been relied upon for years to improve agricultural production efficiency. In Tanzania however, drip irrigation of any sort is rare, and Kadeghe’s research is pioneering a future for domestic horticulture production that could address two of the country’s most pressing agricultural challenges, access to water and electricity.
“Water is scarce,” says Kadeghe. “So we are trying to reduce the amount of water that we use through automation systems. Because this system is solar powered, it will not have an electricity cost, which is another problem here in Tanzania. In particular, there’s a need to control water in horticultural crops. Most, like watermelon, are very sensitive to water needs, so farmers have a problem knowing how much to irrigate. But, if you go with an automated system, then it does it for you. You just monitor it and everything is done by the machine.”
That’s the plan at least, so for now Kadeghe spends his time in a Sokoine University agricultural engineering lab, programming his system and working out the bugs in order to ensure that when it comes time to implement his field trial, everything goes off without a hitch.
Kadeghe is perfectly at home in the lab, surrounded by computers, electrical devices and the tools that assemble and disassemble them. His interest in computer engineering is a natural extension of an innate curiosity for understanding how the world around him works, which he’s had since as far back as he can remember.
“My father always challenged me,” recalled Kadeghe, now seated at his desk in the lab. With a laptop and a partially assembled electronic meter before him, Kadeghe continued, “I remember once asking my father where the sun is coming from and where it’s going. ‘Just wait,’ he said, ‘you will study that in school.’ So I was eager to start school because I knew I would learn interesting things.”
Kadeghe’s late father, a highly-educated man and a senior lecturer of forestry at Sokoine, could easily have revealed the physics of the solar system to his young son that day. Instead, he sowed a seed within an impressionable mind, one that would germinate into an enthusiasm and love for education that would drive Kadeghe to value the pursuit of knowledge throughout his childhood and young adult life.
First it was the sciences and mathematics that inspired Kadeghe, the sciences especially because they offered explanations for the natural phenomena he witnessed all around him such as the movements of the earth around the sun.
“I started to like science and mathematics when I was very small,” said Kadeghe. “I performed well in those subjects compared to all other subjects.”
Kadeghe’s academic and professional interests would eventually gravitate toward computer programming and information technology, which he’d go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in.
Kadeghe’s first job out of college was as a computer programming instructor back home in Morogoro at Sokoine University’s Mazimbu campus. That’s where he would be introduced to Dr. Siza Tumbo and his research on automated agricultural control systems.
Recalling that initial experience of working alongside his future iAGRI academic advisor and mentor, Kadeghe said that, “I studied computer engineering and information technology. So I worked with electronics for years and when I came here to Sokoine University, I met Dr. Siza, who was doing electronics and automation. Through his lab I got to understand micro-controllers and embedded systems, or systems that work alone in agriculture. So I became interested in what systems in agriculture we can automate.”
Kadeghe’s academic re-alignment of computer engineering toward agricultural control systems proved to be a pivotal moment in his life because it instilled within Kadeghe a newfound professional ambition. He realized from the outset that not only was this exciting new field a means to advancing his education, but it was an opportunity to spearhead research that could ultimately prove vital in improving the lives of all Tanzanians by developing agricultural technology that the country needs to become more food secure.
“Agricultural automation is a potential field in Tanzania,” stated Kadeghe. “Electronic devices such as TVs are not as important for Tanzania as control systems for agriculture. They have great potential for this country. We believe that we can boost our country by producing a lot of food for Tanzania and for other countries, especially in Africa.” If Kadeghe’s research is successful, it will demonstrate how exactly Tanzania might replicate existing drip irrigation technology from other model countries such as the United States. Kadeghe understands that potential as well as anyone, as it was in the United States, at the University of Florida, during the first year of his iAGRI scholarship, that he extensively studied the engineering of automated systems.
There, under the academic advisement of Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor John Schueller, Kadeghe was able to tailor a curriculum that perfectly fused the theoretical and practical aspects of computer engineering and agricultural irrigation systems.
“He knew all the courses from the electrical and computer engineering departments,” Kadeghe recalls of Dr. Schueller’s guidance, “and he knew the courses in the agricultural and biological engineering department, so he tried to combine all the courses so that I could get the experience of mixing computers and agriculture together.”
At Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Kadeghe worked alongside Soil and Water Science Professor Arnold Schumann and Senior Lab Technician Kevin Hostler to build an automated drip irrigation system for tomato production. Time didn’t permit actual field testing on the tomatoes, so it would need to be brought home to Morogoro for testing on Tanzanian horticultural crops.
Now thoroughly-tested in the laboratory and installed on Kadeghe’s research plot, it’s time to put his drip irrigation system through its paces and see if it has potential to be a viable aid to horticultural production in Tanzania.
“My research has four objectives,” said Kadeghe, explaining what stage his research is currently in. “The last one is testing in the real world. We are testing if it will control under all conditions that are unique to Tanzania. Because we have some irregularities in Tanzania, we want to see how it will perform in the field.”
Kadeghe is confident in his research and the automated system he’s helped create, and he believes that in time it will prove to be just as viable a solution to improving horticultural efficiency as those systems utilized in model countries. He’s especially confident in his ability to make the system work, particularly due to the valuable experience that his iAGRI scholarship afforded him. Beyond the knowledge gained from class lectures and the tutelage from field-leading experts like Dr. Schueller, Kadeghe attributes the greatest value to the intangibles of the experience, particularly the ability to witness first-hand how automated drip irrigation is being employed successfully elsewhere.
“I’ve studied in an elite university that leads in agricultural and biological engineering,” said Kadeghe. “So they (iAGRI) have created an expertise in Tanzania of what is happening in other countries. The world is going digital and we are trying to go with the whole world. It is a very good thing that we are seeing how the technology is being used. We see that most of the developed world grows a lot of food because they use these technologies, which are the next technologies for this generation of Tanzanians.”
After Kadeghe’s research is published, he understands that there will be even more hurdles to surpass before he sees the future of Tanzanian agriculture fully realized, not the least of which, will be cost. While drip irrigation methods are being adopted throughout Tanzania thanks to training and distribution efforts by USAID, automated systems such as Kadeghe’s may prove too expensive for most farmers. Such problems do not worry Kadeghe though. For someone who has relished the pursuit of knowledge, the quest for answers and solutions never truly ends.
“It looks very expensive,” admitted Kadeghe referencing the system’s initial cost. “But we are doing research to see if we can lower the price.” Chuckling, an enthusiastic Kadeghe said, “Perhaps that will be my Ph.D.”
If you would like additional information on Kadeghe Fue’s research or the opportunity to sponsor his research further, please contact us.
Select images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.