SoilCares Scanner provides real-time fertilization advice

Published: 29-01-2016

SoilCares, a Dutch Sprouts Group subsidiary, has developed an innovative system that can deliver real-time soil fertility management advice. In a pilot project in Kenya, the SoilCares system helped farmers increase their yield by more than 25%. Dutch Sprouts is a group of agricultural specialists dedicated to providing affordable technology to farmers worldwide, so they can increase their yields.

All it takes is four soil samples mixed in a bucket and a scan with an innovative sensor; a few minutes later, custom soil fertilization advice appears on your smartphone. SoilCares’s handheld devices and large database can in the future replace a lab full of expensive equipment. The SoilCares Scanner will make soil analysis (financially) attainable to millions of farmers both in emerging markets and in the West.

The idea is simple, but the technology behind it is not. The system relies on big data and is the result of years of scientific research and development for which SoilCares collaborated with University of Twente, Wageningen University and various technology companies.

The prototype of the scanner functions and gives reliable results, so production will start the coming months. The scanner is set to be launched on the Kenyan market in the spring of 2016.

To a great extent, crop yield is determined by soil fertility. That is why farmers in Western countries regularly have their soil analyzed and then adjust their fertilization to the state of the soil and the needs of the crop they are growing. Traditionally, such analyses are done in laboratories, which makes them expensive. Because they lack the financial resources and the labs, farmers in emerging markets cannot afford such analyses. Their need for soil fertility can be addressed fairly easily with customized fertilization advice.

The SoilCares Scanner is a small, affordable device. Angelique van Helvoort, head of communications & marketing at Dutch Sprouts, says it will probably be used by middlemen in developing countries. “They will carry out the analysis and have the farmers pay a small amount for their customized soil management advice. For example, farmers could take their soil sample to the nearest village where a fertilizer dealer can analyze it for them.”

The scanner uses a Near Infra Red (NIR) sensor that analyzes the main macronutrients that plants need to grow. It also analyzes the soil’s pH value and its total organic content. Once a sample has been scanned, the analysis, along with crop and GPS data, is transferred to the Dutch Sprouts’s database in the Netherlands via the Internet. There, optimum fertilization is calculated and customized fertilization advice is sent back to the sender’s smartphone.

soil scanner

Big data
The fertilization advice the scanner generates is practical and highly specific. It is even possible to specify the advice based on different brands of fertilizer, a feature which Van Helvoort calls essential for farmers in developing countries. “In places like Kenya, farmers often have a limited choice in chemical fertilizers. In the Netherlands, farmers can have their own fertilizer mixes made and optimized to specification. But Kenyan farmers usually have to choose from a few standard mixes that are in stock.”

“That database is the real ‘gold’. It’s taken years to develop,” says Van Helvoort. “And we keep expanding it with information on new types of soil, new crops and new fertilizers. Not only do we collect data ourselves, but we also work with other organizations, such as governments, research institutions and NGOs.”

Millions of farmers
Affordable soil analysis is going to have a big impact on farmers in developing countries, says Van Helvoort. “It takes only a small investment to increase their yield. Sometimes the advice is extremely simple. A different type of fertilizer plus spreading lime can be enough to improve soil fertility. Harvests get bigger and farmers can sell part of their crop at the local market. This income can make it possible for them to send their kids to school, or to invest in their own company,” says Van Helvoort. “This system can benefit millions of farmers all over the globe. Africa’s just the beginning. Over the next few years, the SoilCares Scanner will become available in other parts of the world too.”