Foto: Growing mushroom. © Team Technology
Text by Stephanie Nyairo, Madita Morgenstern-Antao and Philip Kohlbecher
Some time has passed since the pilot group of the Design Networking Hub first met in Nairobi. Back then, everyone picked a topic that she/he was particularly interested in and formed smaller groups. Stephanie, Madita and Philip decided to work on easier access to agriculture.
Bring together three designers passionate about solving a challenge that applies in both Kenya and Germany and what do you get? Well we’re not sure yet but what we do know is the challenge we are trying to solve, how much we’ve learnt during this process of creating and what we’d love to produce at the end of this 18 month collaboration.
Coming together in Nairobi last September was a phenomenal experience for all of us. The workshops we participated in were a great launching pad for thinking through the challenges faced in the areas of housing, mobility and technology and at the end of day 1 we had a room full of topics to tackle. Day 2 saw us all assemble to think through ideas and eventually select an area of focus and essentially form a team to work with. We all chose technology as we feel inspired by the potential it has to ease a problem in any space and revolutionise a practice. From the moment we sat down together we were able to quickly identify agriculture and farming as an area where we would like to focus our design expertise and create a solution that would enable more individuals or farmers to grow food.
Why farming and agriculture?
Because of how essential food is to each and every one of us. More than that we were impassioned by the fact that farming has in the past been a main stay of both the Kenyan and German economies however in the recent years it’s popularity is has waned as younger people pursue careers in other ‘fields.’ The divide between city living and the country experience has grown even more in the last decade, with new technologies, new practices and new ways of living more and more people have no experience with the care it takes to grow food they consume. Many of us have no idea how involving and delicate growing food is. And many of us have little to no access to healthy and sustainably grown food. How can we change even a fraction of one of these concerns? How can we use technology to make the practice of growing your own food more accessible, affordable and sustainable?
We wrapped up our time in Nairobi with a clear direction and a possible solution we could apply to it, Aquaponics. We spent the month after doing research into the technology, speaking to people with experience in the area in order to grow our understanding of farming and the aquaponics space. We spoke to farmers in both Kenya and Germany to understand as much as possible including the crops they grow, the farming landscape in their region, the challenges they face, their pressing needs, the farming technologies they use, the farming technologies they are aware of and their decision making process when it comes to adopting new methods or tools. We also asked them about aquaponics and these conversations and our research were illuminating as they highlighted possible challenges from developing an aquaponics solution. Collaborative work on our Miro board also helped us better frame our idea, and the nice to haves vs the must haves for our final solution. This included an affordable + workable solution for both Germany and Kenya, an easy to use product that a novice would be comfortable with, a meaningful target audience, and a tool that will generate more interest in farming/ growing food amongst enthusiasts. Our bi-monthly syncs also helped us set tasks, discuss ongoing efforts and review our goals.
What we discovered from our research indicated that the workings and realities of aquaponics make it difficult to create the affordable solution we were keen to create. This nudged our idea train on to a different course and we got back to the drawing board to investigate current and upcoming technology solutions that are making waves in the food chain production industries in Kenya and Germany. We also dug deeper to better frame the problems that exist for farmers, and what immediate needs can be addressed in a cost effective manner.
Our conversations with farmers and desk research highlighted that creating and maintaining the optimal environment for food production is a key concern for small-holder farmers. There are and continue to be amazing technology solutions being generated that use sensors and machine intelligence to help farmers make smarter decisions however we found that many small-scale farmers are locked out from accessing these machines because of the high cost of acquisition, but additionally because many of them are tech novices. We chose to focus on this problem space and create a solution that would enable farmers to increase productivity and efficiency, and reduce input costs and risk.
We then went wide again with focus area reading up on sensor solutions, having conversations with people who utilise them and speaking to experts who create these solutions. The German Design Museum Foundation helped to connect us with people at the Fraunhofer and Bosch and these conversations further validated our objective to create an affordable sensor solution for smaller scale food production.
We are now building on this concept and from our interviews with farmers have identified mushroom farming as the primary space to which we’d like to apply our solution. As growing mushrooms requires a small space and less intensive labour making it an accessible avenue for most. However the process is highly sensitive and requires a careful balance of CO2 conditions, humidity, temperature and light. There are six main steps involved in mushroom cultivation; Making the substrate, Finishing the substrate, Spawning, Casing, Pinning, Harvesting.
Our conversations with mushroom farmers in Kenya helped us understand the current production landscape, as well as farmer needs. According to the National Farmers Information Service (NAFIS), Kenya produces 500 tonnes of mushrooms per year, of which 476 tons are button mushrooms, against an annual demand of 1200 tonnes. There is a high demand for the crop, not only in this variety but for oyster and shiitake mushrooms as well. However farmers are unable to meet the demand because of the high cost of inputs like the button mushroom spawn, which is sourced from South Africa. Additionally the knowledge gap and experience on how to maintain the best conditions for the highest yield has locked out many farmers from diversifying into this crop. Technology can certainly help with the latter as a smart sensor solution can support farmers in maintaining the right conditions for optimal yield.
Foto: Starter kit for scale farmers. © Team Technology
Different technology solutions are on offer to help farmers monitor and maintain these conditions however there is a large information gap within the industry on upcoming technological advances and how they can be applied to achieve better yields. And for those who keep up to date with technology advances often the cost of these solutions remains a barrier. Through our conversations and knowledge share with a mushroom farmer in Germany we managed to identify key sensors that could be assembled in a starter kit that would be beneficial to small scale farmers.
Last month, we were able to meet in-person in Frankfurt to work on our concept and better frame our solution and the outputs from this collaboration. We are now developing our prototype with a number of sensors which we plan to test out with a farmer in Kenya in the coming weeks. We’re also working on a concept for a community portal that allows farmers to exchange knowledge, and receive insights based on the data they record.
As part of the Design Networking Hub, a pilot group of five German and five Kenyan designers and architects has been selected with the intention of maximizing the user orientation of the information provided by the platform. During a project phase of about one year, the members have been working in small bilateral teams and jointly developing new product and business ideas or not-for-profit concepts in the fields of housing, social design and technology. A detailed overview of the selected participants can be found here.