Rose: How I use drones to improve farming

Ms Rose Funja, the founder and ceo of AltitudeX

What you need to know:

  • Rose’s interest in owning agricultural land and a college competition spurred the idea to form a company offering farming input services using drones 

It is fascinating just how versatile technology can be. For many of laypeople, drones are often associated with war and aid; or closer to home, high-end event photography, among others.

However, for brilliant minds like those of Ms Rose Funja, the founder and ceo of AltitudeX, technology promises so much if harnessed creatively.

An engineer by qualification and an entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience, Rose has had hands-on opportunities to work directly with national and international organisations that are focused of digital technologies to solve community challenges and push for impact and change.

Rose took her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at the University of Dar es Salaam and then pursued her masters in communication and information systems engineering in China.

“After finishing my masters’ degree in China, I got employed by Huawei for five years and I worked with them in different projects across African countries which include Kenya, Rwanda, Madagascar, Zambia and Tanzania,” she shares.

Around 2012, she came back to Tanzania and was called on to run a college located in Kawe, Dar es Salaam that was called University of Bagamoyo.

She ran the college as the Dean for three years and also gave lectures on software engineering.

While running the university, she and her students came across a competition that tasked students with figuring out how they can best apply Information communication technology (ICT) in the agriculture space.

Entry into this competition came with some personal experience and interest.

“When I came back to Tanzania, I was very interested in acquiring land and getting into agriculture,” she says, adding with a chuckle that this is usually expected of every Chagga-born.

“When I went to buy land, I saw that before buying the piece of land, survey and measuring was done by walking around the land. However, I knew that there was GPS technology that could easily do that,” she says.

“Due to the large number of cases and issues that arise out of land boundaries among people, my students and I decided to pitch this idea as a solution because we realised it will solve a lot of problems such as where the boundaries laid, how big the piece of land is, where it is located and how best to apply seeds per acre and so forth” she explains.

They responded to the challenge and won at both national and regional levels

“After we won on those two levels, were given the prize of support and mentorship via an innovative hub, so we joined the Buni innovation hub which was run by Costech. That project was run by an organisation in the Netherland in partnership with Buni and they gave us the mentorship,” she explains.

“Through that period of mentorship and support, I realised that this idea could actually grow into a company space,” she shares.

It was a pivotal moment for Rose to be able to take that technology and start her first company which was known as Agrinfo.

A while later, a chance meeting during a tech exhibition with students from Loyola High School put Rose on the path to drone technology for agriculture.

“A student showed me a drone and explained to me how it flies and that it could be fitted to carry something and immediately. I had a lightbulb moment and realised that instead of walking around with handheld GPS devices to measure land, we could mount a camera on the drone and have it fly around to do the mapping,” Rose shares.

This was close to the time where news began making waves that something called ‘drones for citizens’ was coming in.

At the time, drones were mainly used for military purposes so this was when they were being introduced to citizens.

The organisation that was running the competition that Rose and her students won was still working closely with them and would always call and have them participate in conferences and meetings.

“So, they had also seen this drone space and they told us that there was a training should we be interested. They gave us conditions because they wanted result,” she says.

“For you to take part in that training, you needed to invest in equipment, so we had to buy our own drones, went for the training and then off to the field to implement what we learnt.”

This training was held in Paris and very specific for agriculture. “Going into the training, I was only thinking of GPS technology but we got to the training and were introduced not just to cameras that can be mounted on drones, but also to multi-spectrum cameras,” Rose shares.

In Agriculture, multi-spectrum cameras are very important because unlike the regular cameras on our phones that capture images in the red, green and blue band, colours that the human eye can see; multi-spectrum cameras are able to create imagery in different wavelengths of light, essentially capturing what is in the invisible spaces.

“When you then sit to analyse imagery and data collected by these multi-spectral cameras, you are able to see what the plant health is, or if you were to do fertilisation, which part of your farm will you do what time of fertilisation and at what rate, which is called a Variable Rate Application” she explains.

This powerful piece of technology that allowed them to mount cameras on their drones and collect data on bigger pieces of land is what they started to do from around 2017.

“We were using that technology and doing mapping for the planting. We were able to tell farmers what exactly was happening on their farms,” she explains.

“In our Tanzanian settings, you’d go to a village and find one or two agricultural advisors and because they may not have vehicles, their services are limited to a few lucky farmers.”

“If you are able to fly around and collect that data, then you can actually help them to prioritise and on lands that have more pressing issues and direct them to those farmers who need their expertise more,” she explains.

“That project started in Moshi at the Kilimanjaro Agriculture Development Project where we worked with researchers who were researching on maize.”

A reality that Rose and her team had to come to terms with was that they were quite early in that space of technology in the country, and this came with a lot of misunderstanding.

Rose shares that they started to provide lot of education and demonstrations and were not bringing in a lot of revenue at that time.

“We started to do diversification into other sectors such as the telecom space to collect data and do what we call digital twins and energy sector to monitor transmission lines amongst others,” Rose shares.

The idea that Altitude X presented is that using the drone technology that they have, they can serve clients from different altitudes of their choice.

“Drones can work up to hundreds of meters away but we can also go into satellites which are kilometres away and we use both technologies in both agriculture and other sectors,” she explains.

In addition to mapping, Altitude X now is able to provide farmers with services like spraying of granulated fertilisers, pesticides and even spreading of seeds.

Since drones fly and cover more land when spraying these pesticides, they are able to benefit more than one farmer in a location, killing off pests in multiple farms at a go.

“For rice farmers, there is a biochemical that when sprayed, is not harmful to the rice but is able to kill mosquito larvae, which means you are fighting malaria from production level,” she explains of the benefits that drones offer to farming.

This is a critical benefit when considering dealing with endemic illnesses. As such, Rose is a firm believer that should policy makers make access to this type of technology for farmers, we stand a better chance of boosting agricultural production in Tanzania.

“My passion for technology in this space has me being an active mentor to girls looking to find their footing in this space. I run both physical and virtual coaching sessions for them,” she says.

As luck would have it, even her company has a higher ratio of females to males.

To females aspiring to get in the agritech business, Rose says that they need to make sure that they’re able to leverage on the networks that are available.

“Agritech is huge and has so many stakeholders. That can be both a blessing because you have options but at times, extremely confusing when trying to figure out who to work with,” she says.

“A lot of people have documented their success and if you know where to look online, you may be able to identify who best suits your vision and goals and work with them or learn from them,” she advises.