Re:co Fellow Spotlight: Implementing Drone Technology in Coffee Farming

Re:co Fellow Spotlight: Implementing Drone Technology in Coffee Farming

LLyela Mutsiya is a Re:co Symposium Fellow, a program sponsored by Illy Caffé, and also the recipient of the Randy Wirth Fellowship Award. This special award is for professionals who are working in the field of sustainability in specialty coffee. This award is supported by the survivors of Randy Wirth, co-owner of a coffee roasting company named Caffe Ibis. Randy lost his life just weeks before Symposium in 2015, and Sally, his widow insisted his ticket go to someone else. This fellowship award has become a staple of the Re:co Fellows program, in Randy’s honor. Past Randy Wirth Fellowship Award recipients include: Joanna Furgiuele, Mbula Musau, and Aleida Stone.

By LYELA MUTSIYA

As a coffee farmers daughter I understand the challenges my father faces and it is important for me to do something about it. In 2017 I established Kenspeco (short for Kenya Specialty Coffee) a coffee exporting and farm management company. I opened this company with one goal in mind, to eradicate poverty within the coffee industry. Our goal is to leverage technology, including Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), to elevate traditional farming methods and crop management with data-fueled efficiency and the accuracy of technology.

I graduated from Lewis University last year with a B.S. in Aviation Administration and a minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and I am currently a licensed Remote Pilot by the Federal Aviation Authority. The knowledge and experience I have gained so far in precision agriculture has convinced me that UAS can be a great asset to coffee farmers. Precision Agriculture is a farming management concept that is based on observing, measuring, and responding to inter-and intra-field variability in crops. Using a UAS to observe and measure plant health will definitely benefit many coffee farmers. Benefits of precision agriculture include an increase in efficiency,  yield, quality and a decrease in input costs.

In Kenya smallholder coffee farmers contribute more than half of Kenya’s coffee production. Regardless of this, my father and many other smallholder coffee farmers face disproportionately high production costs. Fertilizer is a critical input in coffee production and it accounts greatly to the production cost. Significantly high fertilizer costs have caused a few smallholder coffee farmers to use manure or at times nothing at all. These practices compromise the coffee’s quality and yield as well. Many coffee farmers in Kenya are stuck in a cycle of earning low returns, despite the arduous work they do. I first learned of the challenges my father faced as a coffee farmer in 2014. In addition to the aforementioned, pest and disease control in coffee farming is an extremely important issue and another challenging problem.

After I learned about the hardships my father and other coffee farmers faced, I knew that I had to come up with a solution. A solution to not only help my father but other coffee farmers as well. The lightbulb moment of incorporating Unmanned Aircraft Systems better known as drones into coffee farming came to mind in 2015. While utilizing drones in coffee and Kenya is new, there are many proven cases in other crops globally regarding how drones are making a difference to producers and the environment. Water is becoming a political football between cities and farms and drones can help identify areas, amount, and timing of irrigation for coffee. According to the International Coffee Organization. “It is important that coffee production and processing should consider environmental needs and ensure sustainability”. Benefits of using drones are: efficient crop scouting, earlier crop stress detection, enhanced irrigation management and control, and more precise nutrient and chemical applications. This is accomplished by using a high-tech sensor that is inside the drone or mounted to the drone. Farmers use drones to collect images. The multispectral images help spot problems with a crop’s health: These problems are often spotted before the human eye can spot them. When a plant is under stress, it’s either due to a water or fertilizer shortage, or because pests are attacking it.The great thing about this is that a farmer can figure out the issue and come up with a game plan to save his coffee trees before the issue gets worse. Plants reflect different amounts of visible green and NIR light,depending on their overall health, and drones can spot these variances in light.

At the moment I am focused on creating partnerships within the coffee industry that will make this research and development successful. After I complete the R&D I plan on sharing my research with others in the industry, and especially coffee farmers so that we can all benefit. In order to foster sustainability within the coffee industry it is important for us to continuously educate each other on the techniques/ technology that are currently being used. I am certain that the work I am doing will  not only transform my region, but it will make a sustainable difference in the lives of coffee farmers around the world and generations to come.

Photos by Karl Solano