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Zimbabwean aeronautical engineers assemble new crop spraying drone

October 29, 2019

By Wallace Mawire

  Two Zimbabwean aeronautical engineers have initiated a new crop spraying drone technology to provide a more efficient, effective and sustainable crop spraying service for Zimbabwean farmers.

 According to Piwai Chikasha, Managing Director at Alley Capital Group, a Zimbabwean engineering company offering crop spraying services using precision spraying drones, agriculture is one of the leading causes of water pollution affecting thousands of farm workers’ lives each year due to pesticide poisoning resulting from the shortcomings of traditional crop spraying methods.

   Chikasha said that   in August 2018, two Aeronautical Engineers, well versed in aeronautics and drone technology   got together and decided to take action to remedy the situation affecting farmers.Chikasha has an MSc in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. 

  He added that self-funding themselves, they attempted to acquire a crop spraying drone, but were put off by the first few quotations that they received.

  “So we settled on an alternative approach.We mobilised components and successfully assembled the crop spraying drone that we desired. We introduced crop spraying drone technology to the Zimbabwean market, providing more efficient, effective and sustainable crop spraying services. The drone sprayer comes as a replacement for traditional methods consisting mostly of tractor drawn boom sprayers, knapsacks and manned aeroplanes, which fell far short of accuracy and reliability expectations, consequently resulting in massive environmental pollution that will surely impact future generations,” Chikasha said. 

  He added that in a very difficult economy, they  were able to mobilise crop spraying drone equipment, towards the end of 2018, and by April 2019 had closed five successful demonstrations and proof of concept exercises, including some work with a leading local Agricultural College.

  They were also awarded the  ‘Best young Entrepreneur’ at the 2018 – 2019 Green Enterprize Innovation challenge,  received financial support, under the Green Enterprize programme, implemented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), with support from the Government of Sweden.

  “The funds were pivotal for the mobilisation of additional accessories required for the growth of our business. Further, we received business development support, characterised by a 12-month customised and personalised service package. Through this package, we were able also to join the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Co-operation (CTA) community, and ultimately, the AfricaGoesDigital community. With the limited capacity at hand, we are making significant contribution to our nation,” Chikasha said. 

  Also in June 2019,according to Chikasha, Alley Capital Group engaged three horticultural famers in Goromonzi.

  The objective was to improve effectiveness and efficiency of their crop spraying operations and help reduce environmental pollution.

  The farmers relied on non-computerised tractors for crop spraying, pouring an excess of up to 5 litres of chemicals per hectare per week, which ends up in the environment, and negatively impacted local aquatic ecosystems.

  It is reported that other farmers used knapsacks for spraying, a method that is deemed less accurate. “Our calculations showed that one farmer had an excess of 120 litres of chemical per hectare per year, all this eventually ending up in the environment.Lake Chivero, the primary source of Harare City water has in fact been seriously affected by algae, fuelled by chemical pollution, and now costing the government millions to manage. The algae growth in-turn also affects fisheries. The drone sprayer cuts this excess down, providing millilitre accuracy and accountability for each drop of chemical,” Chikasha said.

  He added that in addition, the drone sprayer is battery powered, eliminating the need for diesel powered crop spraying equipment, considering that diesel is not only expensive in Zimbabwe, but is becoming increasingly scarce.

  “One farmer required 6  to 10 litres of diesel per hectare for spraying, but with the drone, not a single drop of diesel is directly used to spray crops. Our objective was also to minimise the harmful side-effects farm workers endured due to pesticide poisoning during crop spraying. During a given season, workers reported up to four consecutive days of constant exposure to chemicals. This is not right! Farm workers actually die every year due to pesticide poisoning, most of them women and children,” Chikasha said.

  He said that the drone, as an autonomous vehicle, ensures zero human exposure to chemicals during spraying.

 “Sadly, most farmers only really care about farm productivity and not the effect and impact of farming activity on the environment or on humans,” Chikasha said.

  He added that another of their objectives is to localize drone production by utilizing available skill and expertise in aeronautical engineering, so that purchase and maintenance of the equipment becomes sustainable.

  He said that the most advanced crop spraying drone is probably the China manufactured series, sitting at a purchase cost of approximately US$ 18,000, each battery costing US$ 900.

  He added that to make profit, a service provider will charge at least US$20 per hectare with this drone, consequently, repelling farmers, especially the medium and small scale.

  “We assembled a suitable drone for under US$ 4,000, suitable for cheap in-house maintenance and repair and capable of using common off-the-shelf batteries worth approximately US$375 each.

    “Ultimately, we offer affordability, attracting several farmers along the way, consequently positively impacting the environment, farm productivity and food security, as well as youth empowerment. Our strategy as engineers and academics, is to localize manufacture of the drones using our knowledge and skill, for adoption of the technology.A 3D printer and scanner, and moulding machine, means that we never have to buy a propeller again. If a drone gets damaged today, we must be able to sit down on a computer, draw the required components on the relevant computer design software, and immediately produce the component in-house using the appropriate machinery. 

  He also added that they are  at the moment, the only drone based crop spray service provider in Zimbabwe.

  “We purchased personal protective equipment for the drone operators, to send a clear message to farmers that the chemicals they are dealing with are in fact dangerous. We then took on the Goromonzi project, primarily focusing on vegetable farming. Through our work, drones for crop spraying will in time become almost naturally mandatory,” Chikasha said.

  He added that drones employ ultra-low-volume spray technology, which has been scientifically proven to be more effective than traditional spraying.

 “Where a farmer required 300 litres sprayed per hectare using the tractor, they now need 24 litres with the drone. Opportunities are endless, and through careful planning, we are flying into a future that is digital and sustainable,” he said.  

  He added that on the positive side, drone crop spraying has proven to be more accurate and efficient.  He says that full implementation will result in cost savings of 20%.He said that farmers’ willingness to take a risk and adopt new technologies will pay off in the long run.  

 Chikasha said that while Africa is scaling up agricultural productivity it has to be mindful to the  cost to the environment.

 He said that drone crop spraying solves many  serious environmental and health  problems, while cutting crop protection costs by up to 30% and increasing productivity significantly.

“We recommend active support for this and other innovations across the continent, so that with multilateral backing, we may transform agriculture so that our children’s grandchildren may inherit an environment that is still fertile and conducive for farming while supporting biodiversity,” Chikasha said.

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