Installation of 90 soil moisture sensors to speed up the digitization of agriculture

Published at: 09 September 2022

The final prototype arrived in the field to be tested with farmers from Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

By: Aquileo Gonzales de Leon, Daniela Salas Betancourt y Oriana Gómez.

With the aim of bringing technological advances in agriculture within reach of small and medium producers, the research sector, academia, and private companies have come together to develop a soil moisture sensor device capable of measuring, processing, and storing data robust, low-cost, and highly usable real-time soil moisture indicator that adapts to different types of crops and soils, collecting soil moisture information that is very useful to increase efficiency in crop management and efficient use of water from decision-making based on the analysis of the data generated with this device. This project has made serious efforts to ensure the successful adoption of the technology by small and medium-scale farmers and producers, which is why in the technical design stage, the co-creation methodology was developed to capture the needs correctly, expectations, and experiences of the end user, which were involved in the final design and development of the measurement device and the complementary data visualization tool. After the pilot tests carried out in the field for the three prototypes initially developed, compared to control sensors, the sensor that presented the best relationship between manufacturing cost versus quality of the data collected was selected. After this, the company Visualiti made a replica of 90 sensors that were distributed in Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua, 30 in each country. What allows a first extension of the sensor to the field, as well as a more extensive scale testing and socialization with the communities of the value of the data and their use for their crops. Highlighting the importance of the heterogeneity found in the types of crops and soils in which it is installed, allowing the development team to observe the behavior of the sensor at each stage of the project.

In Colombia, for example, with the support of Jimmy Mañunga, the leading consultant in the area, the device was deployed in coffee, corn, and bean crops in the villages of San Antonio, San Rafael, Los Cerrillos, and Las Mercedes. , in the northwest of the municipality of Popayán, department of Cauca, as can be seen in the following image:

For its part, in Nicaragua, with the deployment led by Jahnnier Eduardo, the installation was carried out in corn, beans, coffee, and tobacco in three different departments. Thanks to the support of the Mira Flor cooperative and the Buculmay cooperative, ten sensors were installed in the municipality of Santa Maria de Pantasma, department of Jinotega. Thanks to the Compare cooperative, it was possible to install ten sensors in the municipality of Condega, department of Estelí. And the last ten were installed with the help of the CCAJ cooperative in the municipality of Jalapa, the department of Nueva Segovia.

And finally, in Honduras, with the support of Reyneiro Barahona, a leading consultant in the area. The deployment was carried out in corn, bean, avocado, and fodder sorghum crops, in the San Antonio de Oriente communities in Francisco Morazán.

In this installation, it became clear that the initial beneficiaries of this technology were open to change and its implementation during and after the trial period. This is confirmed by Jhannier, who comments that: "in each of the communities where the sensor was installed, there was good support from the technical team, and the producers were willing to receive it, although they were uncertain as to what the sensor was for. Some producers already knew about the rain gauge and asked if it was the same as the rain gauge, for which he explained the difference between the sensor and the rain gauge. That the sensor performs monitoring and data collection of soil moisture, with the time to be able to make decisions in future crop cycles later."

For his part, Jimmy identified the installation experience as an opportunity to "open up the possibility and tools for the field to adapt to the effects of climate change."
One of the main challenges that the consultants comment on is the uncertainty that producers face in the face of the sensor since many questions arise about its costs, sustainability, and operation, for this reason, each of the consultant's comments is of the utmost importance. It is vital to carry out intense training and socialization activities that give beneficiaries clarity about using technology for its optimal appropriation.

As Jimmy comments, "this would contribute to the development of agriculture, but a pedagogy around the use, dissemination, and approach is necessary to promote the advantages of the tool so that people will obtain knowledge of its impact. In this way, people would appropriate it and obtain great benefits related to climate change". 

In conclusion, installing the sensors left several lessons for both the researchers and developers of the technology and the producers. Within these lessons, the first was to make a preliminary approach of the proposed technology to the farmers, who were able to answer their questions, help install them and be fully involved in the transfer process. In addition, lessons were obtained on possible errors at the time of installation, and the experience was gained on the importance of planning and logistics when taking the 30 sensors predisposed for each country to the field.

Acknowledgments to Jimmy Mañunga y Jhannier E. Valle

With the support of
Fondo Coreano de Alianza para el Conocimiento en Tecnología e Innovación (KPK)