GEMS Sensing has coupled world-class engineering design and build expertise with first-rate agricultural science smarts to realize a robust, extensible sensing system for agri-food research anywhere in the world.

Since early 2020, GEMS Sensing has partnered with the Centre for Agricultural Transformation (CAT) in Malawi to pilot the local deployment of GEMS research-grade weather stations and its associated data visualization and sharing tool. Piloting a network of weather stations across Malawi involves much more than working through the logistics of manufacturing, delivering and deploying the necessary hardware and software. It also involves identifying partners willing to trial the weather stations on their research stations/farms and training local CAT personnel to enable the deployment, particularly in remote rural areas with uncertain cellular connectivity. Working through the CAT provides a unique opportunity to engage with private and public agribusiness throughout Malawi to test GEMS Sensing technologies in a low-income, smallholder farmer, tropical environment. 

GEMS weather stations across Malawi
GEMS weather stations across Malawi

Over the past five years, the GEMS Sensing team has used feedback from our field partners to develop ever-improving scientific-grade, plug-and-play sensing devices coupled with a secure web-based informatics service. Weather stations aren’t new, but GEMS Sensing has created a highly customizable system that is built specifically for the varied sensing needs of researchers and their collaborators. The system's core logger box can be used for scientists with vastly different sensing requirements, from a full-stack meteorological station supporting a host of on-station or in-field crop performance studies to more specialized applications aimed at monitoring the below ground conditions that affect plant growth and health. The system's configurable and easy-to-use dashboard enables the integration, exploration, and sharing of real-time sensor data from multiple, perhaps distant, sites through a single portal.

Tracking the real-time, micro-level weather and edaphic patterns impacting agricultural production is crucial for a whole host of reasons, including advancements in breeding, agronomy, and extension efforts and the livelihoods of the farmers responsible for this production. These types of data are used for modeling weather events over large areas (e.g., rainfall and temperature) or informing management decisions like when and how much to irrigate a crop. However, being able to collect, store, clean, explore, share, and analyze these data from multiple sites, isn’t always straightforward. With this motivation in mind, the team has coupled world-class engineering design and build expertise with first-rate agricultural science smarts to realize a robust, extensible sensing system for agri-food research anywhere in the world.

GEMS Sensing in sub-Saharan Africa

For the Malawi pilot project, we worked with a South African-based manufacturer to produce the GEMS Sensing stations. The full-stack weather stations are configured to collect eight parameters every 15 minutes: air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, rainfall, soil moisture, soil temperature, wind speed, and solar radiation. Data are sent via cellular network to a cloud-based database, processed for quality, and made accessible to partners via a user-friendly, web-based portal.

The primary objectives of the pilot exercise were to better understand the

  1. Tropical environmental impacts on the sensing hardware;

  2. Total cost of ownership from a user perspective (i.e., costs of acquisition, installation, and maintenance) involved in deploying digital ag weather sensors in a low-income context with limited infrastructure support; and

  3. Malawian agribusiness’ demand, willingness to pay and potential use cases for networked weather stations (or related real-time sensing needs).

To date, the CAT team has deployed nearly 40 solar-powered weather stations across the spatially and temporally variable agro-ecologies that affect agricultural outcomes throughout the country. The stations continue to stream real-time data from experimental research stations, commercial farms, and smallholder farms. The pilot project is set to wrap-up in December 2023, though the CAT may continue to operate some of the weather stations beyond that time.

Learnings and Lessons

Scaling up a pilot project in Malawi from our operations based in Minnesota during the height of the global pandemic was not without its challenges. The original game plan was to travel with a handful of sensors to Malawi so that our technical team could work closely with CAT personnel and deployment partners to scope out the entire constellation of technical, human capital, cell connectivity, local logistics, device assembly and deployment partner protocols and other factors that could likely affect the odds of a successful outcome. Based on this test deployment we had envisaged tweaking the technical specs, revising our training and related deployment protocols before scaling up deployment throughout the country.

COVID-19 had other plans. It shut down all travel to Malawi, disrupted supply chains for computer chips that were critical to fabricating the GEMS designed sensors, and complicated shipping logistics. Undeterred, we pivoted our whole operation to enable a remote deployment, which, despite our best efforts, was not without its own complications.

Persistence ultimately paid. As we began scaling field deployment in April 2022, our technical team became adept at diagnosing issues long distance, ably supported by a great ground team in Malawi. Fluky cell connectivity issues seemed to be associated with variable soil properties that were vastly improved by simply raising the logger box further off the ground. Unexpected down-time issues were eventually tracked to battery depletion problems that arose from locally assembled devices that sat turned on for lengthy time before travel resumption enabled field deployment to proceed. The fix, change out the run-down batteries.

All told, our GEMS Sensing devices exceeded our expectations, even withstanding Tropical Cyclone Freddy that hit Malawi in February 2023!

Our team visited Malawi in May and traveled with the local CAT sensing team throughout the Southern and Central regions to get first-hand feedback from a host of public and private partners who participated in the GEMS Sensing pilot project. We made site visits with DARS research scientists, commercial agrifood businesses such as Bayer, Pxyus and Global Seeds, and One Acre Fund which services smallholder farmers directly. These partners were uniformly enthusiastic about the ready access to automatically streamed and easily accessible localized weather data. They also highlighted numerous opportunities for leveraging the streaming weather data streams with various backend analytics to tailor informatics solutions to the particular and varied agri-food production problems they faced.

GEMS sensors are currently being deployed with success across four continents. However, this represented our first widespread test of the system in a logistically challenged, low-income African agricultural setting. Prior to the pilot we had all sorts of questions as to whether or not the system would even work, and if so, how reliably and securely. Importantly, would anyone find practical value in such a sophisticated, real-time sensing system in a country dealing with many infrastructure and technological constraints.

Weather matters a lot for agriculture, whether you are farming in Minnesota or Malawi. While Minnesota farmers have access to all sorts of weather related data products, locally accurate, real-time data is still relatively scarce. In Malawi, rurally-relevant weather data of any sort is largely absent. The last time we checked, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) live stream weather data from just one site in Malawi, the Blantyre International airport! This pilot demonstrated the potential for changing this reality for Malawian farmers and the numerous public and private agencies that support their operations.

Even with its many hurdles and holdups, this pilot exercise revealed the feasibility and the latent demand for access to locally sensed weather data. With the lessons learned from our pilot deployment we are excited about the possibility of using GEMS Sensing’s data generation and analytical capabilities to support data-driven decisions that strengthen existing and emerging value chains in Malawi, as well as unlock new agri-food value-chains throughout the world.

This posting was produced as part of the Centre for Agricultural Transformation, an effort led by Land O’Lakes Venture37 and funded with a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, Inc. (“FSFW”), a US nonprofit 501(c)(3) private foundation. The contents, selection and presentation of facts, as well as any opinions expressed herein, are the sole responsibility of the authors and under no circumstances should they be regarded as reflecting the positions of FSFW.