Synnefa charts a food security path with smart greenhouses

Synnefa Engineer installs solar panel to power FarmShield PHOTO | EDDY ASHIOYA | NMG

By providing farmers with smart sensor-installed greenhouses, agriculture technology company Synnefa is solving three problems in Kenya: reducing the cost of farming, increasing crop yields, and boosting food security.

So far, the start-up company has installed more than 1,300 smart greenhouses across East Africa, reaching 11,000 farmers. This has consequently created opportunities for unemployed rural youth.

Founder and CEO Taita Ngetich says his business aligns with the government’s commitment to improving food security and doubling land under irrigation within the next five years.

‘‘We believe this is an opportune moment for systems such as smart greenhouses. Smart greenhouses provide a stable environment for optimal production based on the specific crop grown by optimising the micro-climate conditions,’’ he says.

In terms of efficiency, Mr Ngetich notes that smart greenhouses allow small-scale farmers to reduce water consumption in their structures by more than half compared to manual drip irrigation and even higher compared to surface irrigation.

‘‘A smart greenhouse reduces fertiliser input by 30 percent. It also yields 50 percent more than a manual greenhouse system,’’ he says, noting that this is done by use of artificial intelligence to control various inputs.

As rains become more erratic and insufficient due to climate change, Mr Ngetich argues that climate-smart agriculture is the hope for Kenya’s food security.

‘‘Farmers are now generating a substantial income from their farming activities with an average of between Sh100,000 and Sh240,000 per season.’’

But it is in water efficiency where farmers are reaping big, with 98 percent less water required for crops compared to those grown in open fields. There is also less use of pesticides, therefore ‘‘protecting the environment and sustainability of the planet.’’

But what specifically does climate-smart agriculture entail?

The World Bank defines it as ‘‘an integrated approach to managing landscapes, including cropland, livestock, forests and fisheries that address the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change.’’

Mr Ngetich says these agricultural practices stand on three pillars, namely, increasing productivity and incomes, adapting and building resilience to climate change, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

‘‘Climate change has significantly impacted the country’s agricultural sector, including prolonged droughts, floods, and unpredictable weather patterns. The result has been reduced crop yields and lower incomes for farmers,’’ he says.

By adopting climate-smart agricultural practices, he says, farmers can increase their resilience to these challenges and improve their ability to produce food for themselves and the country.

‘‘Climate-smart agriculture is a [proven] way to combat the climate change threat and to protect our environment,’’ the executive observes.

Agri-food systems account for 31 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, data from a 2019 report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) shows.

Ngetich says growing up on a farm and witnessing farmers’ challenges first-hand inspired him to invest in this agri-tech solution.

‘‘Watching my mother struggle to provide for us when the rains did not come was a disturbing experience for me. When I went to university, I was determined to find a solution,’’ recounts Mr Ngetich, who recently graduated with an MBA from UK’s Warwick Business School.

From the onset, he knew rain-fed agriculture was never the solution. ‘‘I decided to start my own company to provide farmers with the modern tools they needed to become climate-resilient and improve their lives and livelihoods while protecting the planet.’’

With more water saved and reduced inputs to grow crops under greenhouses, the company is also able to unlock carbon credits for farmers and to reward them.

Synnefa has a sustainability strategy that incorporates environmental, social, and governance considerations in its operations.

‘‘All our technology installations are powered by green energy such as solar. They do not impact the environment. We also recycle our batteries and have clear metrics for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as socioeconomic impact.’’

Additionally, Synnefa offers its technology at lower prices to women and youth by working with partners to subsidise the products for this demographic.

The company’s technologies are certified to global standards to further the business’s sustainability agenda, including use of adoption of sustainable supply chain management and eco-friendly packaging.

Communicating transparently and regularly about its sustainability efforts and achievements is also a key component of Synnefa’s continuity policy.

‘‘We do regular reports of our stakeholder engagements,’’ he says.

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