Dr Karuranga’s precision agriculture project to maximize productivity

Dr Egide Karuranga and two of his colleagues from Rwanda and USA first gave a public lecture on optimization of value chains and productivity in Rwandan agriculture at local hotel, in Kigali, back in 2014.
One of the artificial water bodies that are used to store water for drought. / Courtesy
One of the artificial water bodies that are used to store water for drought. / Courtesy

Dr Egide Karuranga and two of his colleagues from Rwanda and USA first gave a public lecture on optimization of value chains and productivity in Rwandan agriculture at local hotel, in Kigali, back in 2014.

A few days later, Karuranga, who then lived in Canada, working as a professor of International Business at Laval University, among his other globetrotting academic duties, was invited to a Ministry of Agriculture workshop in Kigali to discuss where how Precision Agriculture could save the country’s agriculture and lift more people out of poverty.

“From there I was invited to the officers’ mess in Kimihurura to talk about the same. In all these gatherings I could observe both enthusiasm and skepticism,” says the former Chairperson of the Rwandan Diaspora of Canada (2011 to 2015).

“So, I decided to come back to Rwanda and do it myself, in 2017, as nothing had emerged from my previous public talks.”

Karuranga returned home in 2016 and talked to potential partners. Kibungo Catholic Diocese, he says, was among the institutions that understood the concept of precision agriculture. “We registered a joint venture at Rwanda Development Board and started our operations in 2017.”

Precision agriculture also referred to as satellite farming or site specific crop management [or site-specific agriculture] is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring and responding to inter and intra-field variability in crops.

It is reported that this new approach to farm management was born with the introduction of GPS guidance for tractors in the early 1990s.

It is one of many modern farming practices that make production more efficient.

Some of the tomatoes growing in Zaza. / Courtesy

Literature indicates that with precision agriculture, farmers and soils work better. Growers are able to take large fields and manage them as though they are a group of small fields and in the process, reduce misapplication of products and increases crop and farm efficiency.

Today, Karuranga who holds a PhD in Strategic Management is farming on 60 hectares in Ngoma District, Eastern province. A test was made during this dry season on 10 hectares with “zero rainfall” at the top of Zaza hill.

“We deployed climate resilient solutions using local inputs based on precision agriculture principles.”

Hopefully, he says, satellite farmers from the neighbouring Sake region will soon join the optimization platform.

Karuranga’s initial motivation was a so much needed knowledge transfer from Diaspora. He put on hold his university career “to help those who are lifting our people out of poverty.”

The goal of his novel project in Zaza, he explains, is to connect roofs of multiple buildings and harvest 5,000,000 liters of rain water, “enough to water 160,000 plants and cope with any drought for four months.”

The idea is based, he said, on four courses he teaches at different universities. The courses are Business Intelligence, at Laval university in Canada; Optimization of Industrial Value Chains, at Tecnologico de Monterrey (Mexican equivalent of MIT but bigger with 33 campuses and more than 90,000 students).

Others are Operations and Total Quality Management, in addition Strategic Modeling, which he teaches in the country, at the Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) in Kigali.

“In all these courses, the binding thread is: how do you take the best decision in different contexts – manufacturing, building, agriculture, services, and others? In Mexico, my university has 180 hectares for applications in agriculture. We harvest as much as 600 tons of tomatoes per hectare, for example, in a controlled environment.

“In Zaza, the goal during this dry season is 250 tons per hectare in open field. Rwandans usually harvest from one to three tons, for the luckiest!”

Last week, an insurance company and local authorities visited his farm for a risk mitigation assessment. With the watering infrastructure, “our total preventive maintenance policy for diseases,” adequate mulching and organic fertilizers, he is hoping for a reasonable insurance cost.

Support for climbing vegetables are elected to increase productivity and workers are laying thousands of pipes to channel rain water to artificial lakes once the rain season comes.

Most importantly, the Zaza Precision Agriculture project is expected to fix the unacceptable soil erosion that regularly affects the area. Among others, on the top of the hill in Zaza, 50,000 tomatoes in a nursery are doing well.

Pipes that transmit water throughout the garden. / Courtesy

Sustain five-month drought

Karuranga is unfazed if the artificial lakes dry up during the long dry spell, because the mathematical modeling of water harvest from roofs and water needs of the vegetables shows there is enough water to sustain a five-month drought.

“In the model we compute ground square meters of our buildings, rain fall, speed and direction of wind, slope and materials of the roofs, temperature and we include water needs for each and every plant at different stages of growth.”

“Our algorithm takes care of seasonal variations whenever they occur. We tested the robustness and stability of our simulated solution on the ground using portable rain guns among other techniques. And, believe me, it works!”

Their vegetables are growing fast, he elaborates, simply because photosynthesis – process by which plants use energy from sunlight to produce sugar – is at its best in the dry season. In addition, he says, water flow to plants is regulated.

“Here, you have a perfect illustration of the system dynamics approach which lacks a lot in our classrooms: mixing different disciplines to forge sustainable solutions.

“In our case, mathematics, statistics, meteorology, architecture, biochemistry, software engineering, economics, crop production, fluid mechanics are mixed to produce what you will see when you come for a visit. I strongly believe that we can change the fate of agriculture using a system dynamics approach.”

Among his other duties ever since he returned home, Karuranga is now Board member at the Rwanda Initiative for Sustainable Development (RISD), a local non-governmental, non-profit organization which mainly focuses on policy action oriented research and advocacy, where he lends a hand in research and strategic development.



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