Sprayer Drone for precision agriculture

Award-winning Zimbabwean drone start-up, Alley Capital Group are bringing a new dimension to farming in the country – aerial crop-dusting using drones.

The founding duo of Piwai Chikasha and Takudzwa Chipedza are confident drone technology will in the long run is replace current and traditional crop spraying platforms, which they claim are less efficient and to problems of environmental pollution and pesticide poisoning.

“We are, at the moment, the only official drone crop spraying service provider in Zimbabwe,” says Mr Chikasha, wholike his co-founder, is an aeronautical engineer. “We are hoping to start a revolution which will see drones becoming the preferred method for crop spraying in Zimbabwe. Drones employ an ultra-low-volume spray technology, which has been scientifically proven to be more effective than traditional crop-spraying methods. In lettuce and cabbage spraying, for example, a tractor-drawn boomer sprayer would use 75 litres of spray, while a drone would need only 20 litres of solution at higher concentration, but with five percent less pesticide per hectare. We intend to invest in further research leading to decreased quantities of pesticides applied per hectare with greater efficiency, accuracy and timeliness.”

It is well and good that they can make these plans now; the beginning was not so rosy. In August 2018, the two young engineers came together with an idea to make a difference on the country’s agricultural landscape.

“We did not have enough capital at the start; even when we pulled our savings together, they were severely short of the sort of drones we wanted for our project. We were hoping to purchase one of the most advanced crop spraying drone systems – a Chinese manufactured sprayer drone. But we were quoted a price of approximately $18,000 and the batteries had a separate price of $900 each. There was no way we were going to recoup our capital input and operate a viable business while charging a competitive price on small scale farmer clients. To make a profit operating this imported drone, we’d need to charge at least $18 per hectare. Such a price discourages farmers, especially medium- and small-scale farmers.

“So we settled on an alternative approach: we mobilised components and successfully assembled the crop-spraying drone that we desired; the total cost of that drone came under $4,000. We could maintain it in-house, and assembled it so it could work with off-the-shelf batteries worth approximately $375 each. We introduced this drone to the Zimbabwean market, offering an efficient, effective and sustainable crop spraying alternative.”

By the end of April 2019, the team, in collaboration with … Agricultural College, had successfully carried out five live demonstrations and proved that Zimbabwean farmers could adopt drone spraying into their operations. In June of the same year, Alley Capital Group introduced drone crop spraying to the farm operations of three horticultural farmers in the Goromonzi District, about 40km to the east of the capital, Harare.

“The farmers liked it. We were particularly lucky with the younger generation, who are pleasantly interested to learn about drones. We have actually extended our client base to include farmers in citrus, soybean and vegetable farming. Our objective was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their crop spraying operations, and to prove they could also reduce their operating costs while at it. With adequate investment in training, farm workers can be absorbed into the system. In addition, our work has revealed that farmers can also benefit from drone survey and mapping services. We are not currently equipped to deliver them, but we are planning to provide these services in the near future.

“More importantly, it would also lead to a reduction of the chemical pollution levels. Farmers regularly rely on tractors for spraying their crop, and apply recommended rates of active ingredients, but lack the accuracy offered by a GPS guided drone to make sure that the distribution of the chemicals is optimised. This results in excess quantities applied in certain areas of the field due to overlapping passages or wastage of it along the sideways. All this affects the biotic environment and the natural water system.”

Chikasha also lauded the drone sprayer for its environmental friendliness by eliminating the use of fossil fuels like diesel and petrol, which have a history of being scarce in Zimbabwe anyway.

“Besides, using drones for crop spraying will minimise the danger of poisoning for farm workers by reducing the length of their time in contact with pesticides.”

Alley Capital Group are planning to disrupt the agriculture landscape in Zimbabwe

Alley Capital are planning to localise drone production by using their expertise in aeronautical engineering, so that purchase and maintenance of the equipment becomes manageable. “This enables us to charge a significantly lower price which we have come to prove most medium-scale farmers are willing to pay, especially those currently using fuel-powered tractors with boom sprayer.”

At the 2019 Green EnterPRIZE Innovation Challenge, hosted by the International Labour Organisation, with support from the Government of Sweden, Alley Capital won the prize for Best Young Entrepreneur, and used their prize money to mobilise the additional equipment required for the commercialisation of our business.

“We also received twelve months of business development support from the ILO, which among many achievements, saw us adopting world class standards and systems to manage our business and operations. Through this service package, we also linked up with the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU, and through CTA we joined Africa Goes Digital, the largest community of commercial drone operators in Africa.

“Then in February 2020, we were awarded the Public Vote award at the Africa Drone Business Challenge in Kigali. We won a $5,000 grant from the ILO, awarded in June 2019. This helped us acquire the necessary accessories, especially batteries and protective clothing for staff, without which our operation would be several steps behind.”

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