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New Tech Talks to Plants, Aiding Climate Solutions

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Vusi Melane
Vusi Melane
Staff Writer

By 2034, environmental issues will emerge as a major threat, characterized by extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and resource shortages, posing significant risks to economies and societies. This revelation stems from a recent report by the World Economic Forum. But what if we could utilize the Internet of Things (IoT) to heed the early warnings from our planet? Asks Cisco’s Director of Sustainable Solutions for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), Angelo Fienga.

World environment day

Speaking in light of World Environment Day 2024, Fienga emphasises the benefits of this technology. “It’s not just about environmental sustainability, this technology is helping farmers preserve soil, save water, and grow their businesses responsibly.”

‘This is crucial in emerging markets such as South Africa, where the agriculture and farming sector are vital for job creation and sustaining the nation. However, the country faces challenges like droughts attributed to climate change.’ he says

Farmers, plant and tech

To showcase how IoT is being employed to alleviate the effects of climate change on the industry, Fienga recounts the tale of an initiative the company is launching in collaboration with the ConSenso Project. “This project involves a partnership between Tanzanian coffee farmers and Italian plant and technology researchers.” he says

From Bean to Brew: A sustainable journey

“There’s nothing like a steaming hot morning brew to start the day,” he notes. “But before it reaches your mug, its journey begins on a coffee bean farm — often in the developing world and, increasingly, impacted by climate change.”

What’s emerging is a solution that could prove economically advantageous for the growers, environmentally friendly, and exciting news for coffee enthusiasts worldwide. Ensuring optimal growing conditions, particularly in regions facing increasing water scarcity, is crucial for cultivating coffee with the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.

“Due to climate change, growers in Tanzania are facing a reduction in the rainy season,” explains Dr Camilla Pandolfi of PNAT, a think tank of plant scientists and technology designers based in Florence, Italy. “So, they are irrigating to ensure that the plants flower at the right time and give the beans a chance to ripen. That means a lot of water is used.”

IoT: Listening to the language of plants

“Technology is helping farmers know when to irrigate and how much, among other things.” highlights Fienga

The Tunasikia Farm in Utengule, Tanzania, is equipped with 65 solar-powered IoT sensors that collect a vast array of data on soil, sunlight, climate, carbon absorption, insects, and the electrical energy fields of plants. This data provides insights into their health and requirements. Following initial on-site analysis, the collected data—spanning six months—is transmitted to Florence for further examination, with assistance from Cisco networking, security, and cloud technologies.

Tanzania is among the 20 largest coffee-producing countries in the world. So, helping the farmers navigate challenging conditions is essential to their success and that of the nation. Moreover, the technologies employed here could be scaled in other regions.

Coffee research leader at Accademia del Caffè Espresso in Florence– ConSenso partner, Massimo Battaglia says “Many developing nations grow coffee — Africa, South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and other places. And we aim to roll out this kind of solution worldwide.”

“It’s my dream,” he says, “for this technology to help families have a better standard of living. The value chain for coffee is long and complicated, but the first part — the growers — is sometimes neglected.” he adds

Beyond Coffee: A global solution

Cisco LoRaWAN, a radio-transmission technology known for its long-distance data transmission and low-power consumption, is among the solutions helping to connect the sensors while enabling local, preliminary data analysis. Cisco cloud and LTE technologies further support the secure transfer of data to Florence and back. And Cisco Webex enables real-time, secure collaboration between project members in Tanzania and Florence.

Senior Systems Engineer Manager for Cisco Italy, Michele Festuccia outlines that “The technology allows us to understand the language of the plants. This is a perfect solution to help the farmers have a more sustainable footprint and the best chance of success.”

Simultaneously, researchers are investigating the coffee plants’ capacity to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2), thus averting its release into the atmosphere. This potential could offer substantial advantages in combating climate change.

“We are thinking that, along with other reforestation efforts around the world, coffee plants can have a significant impact.” adds Festuccia

Dr Pandolfi believes that coffee plants and carefully chosen shade trees could be particularly adept at capturing carbon, but more research is needed. “We are now developing our models and dashboard for monitoring carbon which will be another exciting outcome. We want to demonstrate how coffee farming can become a carbon sink, helping to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Looking Forward: Expanding the impact

Fienga is enthusiastic about the potential of additional technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). “Through our technologies and connectivity, we can transfer massive amounts of data. When properly trained, AI can extract insights from that data in ways that humans cannot. This approach has vast potential in any field with large datasets, including agriculture.

Extending these solutions beyond coffee stands as a primary objective, particularly amidst the ongoing global disruptions to agriculture caused by climate change. As Battaglia aptly concludes. “We just need to listen to what the plants are telling us.”

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