Connecting Africa is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 3099067.

Innovation Hub

Hot startup of the month: Kenya's Illuminum Greenhouses

Article Image
Sub-Saharan African agriculture has a massive footprint, with more than 60% of the continent's population engaged in smallholder farming, and about 23% of its GDP hailing from the sector.

However, Africa's full agricultural potential remains untapped. According to McKinsey, the continent could produce up to three times more cereals and grains, which would add 20% more cereals and grains to the current worldwide output. Similar increases could be seen in the production of horticulture crops and livestock.

There are a variety of reasons for this relatively low productivity, including a lack of specialist knowledge among farmers and a shortage of vital equipment, which is often too expensive for smallholder farmers.

Yet across Africa, startups in the Internet of Things (IoT) space are using innovative technology to fill gaps and boost yields.

Key among them is Kenya's Illuminum Greenhouses, which builds smart greenhouses, powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), enabling IoT to penetrate the market and reach local farmers.

The startup's greenhouses come equipped with intelligent irrigation and fertigation systems, which help eliminate guesswork from farming while increasing yields through using solar-powered sensors.

Its trademarked FarmShield product allows users to remotely control their farm from their mobile phone and online dashboard while getting real-time information on fertigation and irrigation needs for their crop.

Since its launch in 2014, it has constructed almost 2,000 greenhouses for its customers, impacting over 18,000 farmers. These farmers have reported less work needed on the farm, increased yields by up to 30%, and reduced water usage by up to 60%.

Given this success, it has expanded its product range to include nethouses, drip irrigation kits, screenhouses and soil testing.

"With the proliferation of M-Pesa in Kenya enabling faster movement of money from cities to rural areas and Internet connectivity improving [with] the adoption of the smartphone, it created a market segment of consumers connected to the Internet actively looking for information on improving yield on their farms," said Illuminum Greenhouses CEO Taita Ngetich.

Illuminum Greenhouses CEO Taita Ngetich.  (Source: supplied)
Illuminum Greenhouses CEO Taita Ngetich.
(Source: supplied)

"This market segment can be further broken down into two. First, middle-income farmers, or what we like to call 'telephone farmers' who live in cities and have plots of land they wish to utilize. Second, peri-urban farmers who grow horticultural crops that feed the city dwellers and have adopted technology through smartphones due to increased Internet penetration across Africa."

These two segments want to eradicate guesswork in farming by adopting modern technologies that result in greater yield and income, which is what Illuminum Greenhouses helps them do.

Though there are existing market players who provide greenhouses, sensors and farmer services such as soil testing to farmers, Ngetich said what differentiates Illuminum is that it bundles all of these products and services into one turnkey solution for farmers.

"We combine greenhouses, smart sensors and agronomy services into one basket, leaving the farmer to focus on what they love most which is farming, leaving all the heavy lifting to us. We have also gone an extra mile to share irrigation and fertigation data with micros financial institutions that can use it to credit score farmers, therefore, opening up a new possibility of IoT data-driven lending," he said.

Growth prospects

Illuminum Greenhouses has focused on growing organically via bootstrapping, but given its huge socio-economic impact it has secured support from development partners that include Innovate UK, USADF, USAID, DFID and Nike Foundation. Corporations such as Cisco and Ericsson have also invested in its IoT development, and it is aiming to close its first pre-seed round this year.

Currently focused on East Africa, the Kenyan company has conducted installations in other countries such as Ghana, South Sudan and Somaliland, and it will look at further expansion in West Africa in the future. For now, it is honing its product.

"We just completed developing our new improved version 4.1 of FarmShield, which will bring about advanced AI and ML to irrigation and fertigation cycles for farmers as well as IoT-based lending," said Ngetich.

A FarmShield device being installed.  (Source: supplied)
A FarmShield device being installed.
(Source: supplied)

The startup, which monetizes through sales of greenhouses and smart sensors as well as recurring revenue from subscriptions to its cloud dashboard, already has revenues of between $300,000 and $600,000 per annum.

Ngetich said that is growing annually, and he plans to hit over $1 million in revenue by 2023. Part of his confidence stems from the size of the opportunity he sees in the wider IoT space.

"The addressable market will continue to grow rapidly over the next decade with the growth of the smallholder population, improvements in connectivity and rising revenues per farmer," he said.

"There has been a continued acceleration in mobile broadband coverage, as operators upgrade existing 2G sites to 3G and 4G. With the increase in Internet connectivity and smartphone penetration, information will be able to reach more and more consumers across the region. The influx of this information combined with decreasing farm yields with certain areas having decreasing land sizes will push the need to optimize food production over small areas."

Smartphones are making IoT solutions more accessible to farmers.  (Source: supplied)
Smartphones are making IoT solutions more accessible to farmers.
(Source: supplied)

Farmers, however, often still need persuading, and Ngetich said Illuminum focuses on leveraging the behavioral patterns of its customers.

"We do not seek to change it but rather complement it and therefore drive adoption. We work with village champions, who are experienced farmers and influence the behavioral patterns of farmers around them," he said.

"By setting up demo sites on their farm, they are able to experience the technology first-hand then transfer the knowledge to the early adopters around their area."


Want to know more about African startups and new innovations on the continent? Check out our Innovation Hub here on Connecting Africa.


However, barriers like affordability remain a key challenge across the sector.

"IoT solutions currently are not affordable to the larger market segment of smallholder farmers who earn less than US$2,000 per annum," Ngetich said. "This is because sensor costs are still high, Internet costs are high, and connectivity is still low in rural areas. This hampers mass production as companies focus on serving the innovators, who form just 3% of the overall market segment."

Ngetich believes the future is bright, just as smartphone prices have dropped in recent years, he sees similar developments occurring in IoT as Internet connectivity increases and sensor prices decrease.

"More farmers will adopt the technology, slowly moving from innovators, to early adopters and to the early majority. Our role is to ensure we deliver a robust and easy to use IoT device by the time we target the early majority for them to be good ambassadors to the late majority," he concluded.

Related posts:

*All images supplied by Illuminum Greenhouses.

Tom Jackson, co-founder of Disrupt Africa, special to Connecting Africa

Innovation hub

Story

KaiOS targets merchant market for growth, digital inclusion

KaiOS Technologies, the creator of a mobile operating system for smart feature phones, is piloting affordable merchant payment terminals - which look like feature phones - in Africa to help underserved merchants and transport providers accept digital payments solutions.

Story

Ilara Health aims to improve quality of care in Kenya

Kenyan healthtech startup Ilara Health aspires to improve the quality of care in the country's clinics by providing equipment financing and digitizing facilities with its software.

More Innovation hub

Latest video

More videos

Guest Perspectives

Story

Leadership Lessons: The importance of mentorship for career growth

By Nollie Maoto

Nollie Maoto, First Rand Group's compliance chief data and analytics officer and Africa Tech Festival Leadership Council member, reflects on the importance of mentorship for career growth for African women in data analytics.

Story

Omdia View: May 2024

By Omdia Analysts

May 2024's telecoms highlights in the Middle East and Africa included African 5G subscriptions surpassing 5 million, growth from SpaceX's satellite Internet service Starlink, and a major fiber partnership in the Middle East and North Africa.

More Guest Perspectives

Sponsored video

More videos

Industry announcements

More Industry announcements

Upcoming events

Cyber Revolution Summit
August 9, 2024
Gaborone, Botswana
Africa Tech Festival 2024
November 12-14, 2024
Cape Town, South Africa
More Upcoming events

Africa Tech Perspectives

Story

Uber's Marjorie Saint-Lot on inclusion and sustainability in Africa

Uber's Country Manager for Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, Marjorie Saint-Lot, shares how the ride-hailing company is approaching public-private partnerships, environmentally friendly initiatives and gender inclusion in Africa.

Story

The 100 most influential African leaders in 2023

A new report from Africa Tech Festival and Connecting Africa puts a spotlight on the top 100 African leaders in the telecoms and technology sector in 2023.

Story

Deep dive into East Africa's tech startup ecosystem

New survey reveals a lack of access to investors, reliance on international VCs and global recession trends as the biggest barriers for East African tech startups to access funds.

More Africa Tech perspectives

Partner perspectives

All Partner Perspectives

Follow us on X

Like us on Facebook

Newsletter Sign Up


Sign Up
Tag id test-002