Interview to Leone Magliocchetti Lombi (Djibouti)

Digital agriculture (or precision farming) is simply adopting new digital technologies in agriculture to improve agronomic efficiency.

Engaging in digital agriculture, adopting internet of things, doesn’t necessarily require heavy investments or owning large farms; on the contrary, it may be really affordable, effective and… fun.

Indeed digital agriculture may be scaled down to “home production”.

While the indoor MIT Food computer and the amazing outdoor FarmBot Genesis XL are examples of advanced digital agriculture for “home production”, Leone Magliocchetti achieved equivalent astounding results while staying at very low budget using very little energy, basic Internet of Things solution and recycled material.

Leone approach can also be easily scaled up to larger production (for instance “low-cost digital greenhouses”) making it a viable solution for developing countries. In the following interview, Leone will fully share his amazing experience.

Interview to Leone Magliocchetti Lombi (Djibouti)

Marco: Leone, please condense your achievements in few sentences.

Leone: I produce 60 lettuce a week in Djibouti on just 25 square meters combining IOT (Internet of Things) and Hydroponics with a less than USD 500 investment and saving 90% of water. I built an automatic hydroponics garden that is connected to the internet in Djibouti, East Africa. While hydroponics for small landholders in hot climates deserves its own space, I’d like in this interview sharing my experiences about the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT), open source technology for small farmers, agricultural researchers and agricultural engineers.

Marco: Leone what is your background? How familiar were you with IOT when you started your project?

Leone: IoT in agriculture is still a learn by doing hands-on experience, and it doesn’t require to be a geek to deal with it. I’m an agricultural engineer, and when I started my project I didn’t have any electronics know-how, maybe just some rudimentary web coding skills.

Marco: What does it mean farming in Djibouti?

Leone: Djibouti is one of World’s Hottest Places! Not only that, Djibouti is a country located in one of the aridest areas of the world. Half of the year the temperature ranges between 34C° at night and 45C° during the day. The rest of the year daily temperatures continue to reach about 35C°, every day. Raining only occurs once or twice a year… unless it’s a drought year (every 4 years on average), and then it doesn’t rain at all. The country’s outback is mainly a rocky desert which offers fascinating landscapes that would have you think you were on Mars. Agriculture is probably the most difficult challenge.

In the past, this part of the world was almost completely uninhabited. The few local people developed a resilient society based on traditional pastoralism and transhumance. I am an expert in an agricultural water scarcity. Not surprisingly, Djibouti became my main destination about 7 years ago. After a few exploratory trips, I eventually settled here. I was interested in seeing some agricultural miracles happen with an integrated agro-ecologic approach. Indeed, mastering Oasis and flash flood spate irrigation creates a foundation for productive agriculture, even at these latitudes. The national vegetal production is still very low. Djibouti is a country where almost everything must be imported, including most of the fresh food. For instance, for a single 300g lettuce at the local market, you would pay $5-7 US.

Marco: What triggered your motivation to start your project?

Leone: Making sustainable my own vegetable consumption! 15-20 USD/kg of lettuce is just crazy. It was worth investing in home self-production even just for my own consumption. But…water salinity, sterile soil (especially in the city) and the high temperatures, were still open challenges. In addition, my work prevented me from devoting much time to tend to a delicate garden.

Marco: Water seems to be the highest challenge to me. I believe about 130L of water are required per Kg of lettuce in an average situation. Djibouti high temperatures and consequent higher evapotranspiration would require even more. How have you addressed this challenge?

Leone: That was my first concern indeed. Tap water wasn’t an option. It is too saline for extensive irrigation use (the Electrical Conductivity/Salinity was over 3 millimhos/cm while drinkable tap water is usually between 0,4 and 0,7).

Electrical Conductivity/Salinity over 1 it is toxic for lettuce plants! My only option seemed to purchase desalinated water from a local ice factory. But this would have been expensive and time consuming to transporting it home each time. I needed a better solution. The lazy part of me motivated me to go for the most efficient irrigation method possible: a closed-circuit hydroponics system. Hydroponics is a planting technique that allows plants to grow without soil because the nutrients are dissolved in the water. When the nutrient solution circuit is closed so it can be recycled constantly. Hydroponics eliminate water waste through soil infiltration or direct evaporation, therefore, limiting water losses to transpiration (the plant leaves). I was aware that Hydroponics when properly done, can save up to 90% of irrigation water. No solution is perfect though. As a downside, hydroponics requires close control of a series of parameters, such as the nutrient concentrations and the acidity of the water, while my time for attending the plants was limited to the weekends.

Marco: It sounds like a direct call for digital agriculture through the Internet of Things. How did you tackle it?

Leone: Yes, at that time I realized I needed an automatic and self-maintaining hydroponics garden. I decided for the Arduino platform. It is a delightfully stubborn, stable, cheap, reliable, small computer. It can be easily programmed to perform routine tasks, including turning on and off the electricity for high voltage circuits. It lends itself for easy connections to a variety of sensors of different grades and types. The documentation support is virtually unlimited thanks to the open source community contribution. After devouring the Arduino starter kit, I realized that… yes, I could make it! Some sleepless weeks and the first automatic indoors hydroponic garden prototype was finally working.

The pump was activated to recirculate the nutrient solution based on light intensity and air temperature. If the light from the roof window wasn’t strong enough, the grow lights were turned on. With some plastic pipes and some adapted rigs from drip irrigation systems, an automated Do it Yourself (DIY) hydroponics system was now running in my spare room! The nice thing about experimenting with lettuce is that their life cycle is very short. About every 2 months enough data is collected on a full cycle of production. The learning curve is steep enough so there are immediate rewards and the impact of lessons learned can be seen rapidly from previous cycles. The first prototype was quickly followed by a second one. Then, I moved everything outdoors to reduce the electricity demand from the grow lights. In fact, my garden size was now increasing at every new cycle.

Marco: Very interesting, Leone. Given your work allowed you little time to attend your garden, how did you know that it was operating correctly when you weren’t home? Did you completely trust the autonomous system or had you some tool to remotely check your garden?

Leone: That’s a very good point. In fact, as much as I could trust in technology and my fresh coding skills, I didn’t feel confident enough. I wanted to know what the sensors were sensing, or if the pump was actually turning on and off. I wanted some remote feedback. I felt automation was nothing without real-time, updated information.

Therefore, my second prototype included the internet connection, but it didn’t happen on a whim. I already had some rudimentary programming knowledge making it easier for me to understand the Arduino WiFi communication. I was going to be all set with a “verb” to transport my information over the web. When I connected my garden to the internet for the first time I was thrilled! I was feeling like I was breaching into a domain previously forbidden to me. That was the beginning of a new era for me as an agricultural engineer. I gained a substantial understanding that real objects, actual plants, in this case, can be sensed and made easily accessible over the web. That made me realize how the knowledge of the mechanisms behind the Internet of Things (IOT) would soon become a basic necessary skill for most economic sectors, including agriculture.

Marco: How did you start sharing your experience?

Leone: It started out as friendly barter with my neighbor. When I moved the prototypes outdoors, I asked some friends if I could use their roof terrace. In exchange, they picked some salad and tomatoes. While I was only physically checking my plants every 6-8 days I was able to constantly keep an eye on them through the smartphone, almost every hour. I didn’t realize at that time that my friends were showing off the self-caring garden to their neighbors. So, when a couple of months later, the first tomatoes were turning red, I’ve been asked to organize a workshop about hydroponics and the Internet of Things (IOT) for a very opinionated neighborhood. I found the participants equally divided between those wondering if we should eat plants grown without soil and the other half eager to have a similar installation on their terraces….as soon as possible. The workshop ended with a big vegetarian buffet lunch with people enjoying their new understanding about how the food they were eating was actually automatically grown.

Marco: Was it the final version or did you move to new prototypes?

Leone: At that workshop, I met an extremely talented carpenter who loved the whole concept. He helped me with the third prototype designed for indoors. Completely made out of wood and recycled plastic parts found at the dump.

More followed and after about 2,5 years and a dozen prototypes of DIY connected gardens, I felt it was time for scale-up. I built so far gardens of different shapes and sizes, indoors and outdoors, soil and soilless. It was finally time to construct a 25 square meter hydroponics unit. The production target would be about 60 lettuce plants per month, aiming eventually to go vertical doubling the production. For this project, I decided on an Arduino Yun board in combination with an obsolete smartphone to be used as the hotspot. This remotely controlled garden was working like a Swiss watch. Through the weeks, the basket of our informal buys local group was already being enriched with some nice heads of lettuce.

Marco: What are the final lessons learned from your multi-year hands-on experience? How do you think new digital technologies will impact agriculture production?

Leone: New digital technologies can be really a game changer in farming. Farming required to constantly assess plants health and requirements assessing their leaves, shape, and color.

You needed these skills to be a successful grower discouraging enthusiasts and investors from entering agriculture. The same applies to individual smallholders. Now everything is changing. The required know-how is easily available. Basic education gives everyone the capacity to read and interpret charts and alerts. Connected devices such as smartphones and computers are close at hand. That’s the future I see. A relevant portion of commonly consumed agricultural production is on its way to being democratically delocalized very close to where it is consumed. It is environmentally more sustainable, both at local and global scale. The value chain will be shorter, providing a fairer economic distribution. This will also guarantee higher product quality.

Marco: You validated these new farming practices proving that small-scale farming is possible with little financial resources, a limited amount of time invested and saving 90% of the water. What has been the social impact of sharing these experiences with the local population?

Leone: Educating Djibouti youth on the basics of internet-connected hydroponics technology has immediately made agriculture more appealing for them. Small investors in Djibouti are intrigued, too. Hydroponics previously wasn’t even considered a viable option in Djibouti because it was referred as a “very advanced and heavy investment demanding technology that only works in the developed countries”. Now, small entrepreneurs are able to seriously consider starting a small pilot project. The information technology will increase their level of understanding and control, which is increasing their level of confidence in agriculture. More broadly, African agriculture lacks public and private investments that can increase productivity and food security. Monitoring environmental data and plant performances in a systematic manner should boost the access to credit and insurance services for the smallholders, especially for the most vulnerable. Connected technologies are not yet taught in all schools and universities though. Agricultural engineers in the past had to learn the basics of economics and law to embrace the complexity that comes with the modernization of societies. The time has now come that farmers and agricultural engineers learn the basics of modern connected technologies.

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