When three engineering students from Dedan Kimathi University of Technology saw the challenges bee farmers experience every day, came together and developed a solution. Jackline Tum, a tech enthusiast with a passion for using technology to solve community challenges was interested in helping bee farmers because growing up in Nandi County, she had seen first-hand how farmers would incur losses and fail to get value from their beekeeping ventures. Together with her fellow student, Joseph Musya and Clinton Oduor, they started IBees – an automated non-invasive method to help beekeepers remotely monitor the state of their beehives in real-time on their phones.
This way, farmers get notifications via the IBees mobile application that inform them about any potential risks to their hives, enabling them to act fast and deal with the challenges. Using the mobile application, farmers can also keep apiary records such as harvests and beehive operations tasks and schedules that allow them to track progress and stay up to date.
Last year in partnership with support from UK-Kenya Tech Hub and UK aid, Producers Direct held a Youth Direct na AgriBiz Digital National Innovation showcase to provide a platform for young agri-preneurs to showcase their work in the agriculture space and share their successes from these innovations. IBees won the best innovation award. We spoke to one of the co-founders Clinton about their brilliant innovation, their learnings as they develop it and their future plans for IBees.
How are bee farmers responding to the IBees innovation?
Clinton: At the moment, we are working mostly with bee farmers in Nyeri County and we just recently began to work with bee farmers in Murang’a County and so far, we’ve received positive feedback from the farmers we sampled. They’ve told us that there are a lot of challenges they are facing and having the IBees device is helping to provide solutions to some of these challenges.
Are there examples of farmers who have shared their challenges and how IBees is helping address these challenges?
Clinton: There is a farmer from Nyeri County who told us that she kept having issues with honey badgers and this was a big problem for her. The solution we offer using our device is the ability to detect vibrations, knocks and also tell if a bee hive has been toppled. Having near real time alerts for her was a much needed relief that helps her respond to these threats in good time. So, whether a farmer is close to the hives or not, they can receive alerts from anywhere in the world.
We also spoke to a bee farmer in Kitui County, where there are many bee farmers, who told us that a lot (about 14%) of hives destruction is caused by honey badgers. This is a big number considering the number of bee hives that are currently in Kenya, so it is a big problem. We’ve also noticed honey badgers coming to our bee farm at the research centre, further reinforcing that they are a big problem for many bee farmers and farmers need to be able to detect their approach before they get to their hives.
Tell us a little about the farmers in your network
Clinton: Most of the farmers in our network are above the age of 35, but they are also not very old. We have a few young farmers aged 35 and below, but most of them are still trying to understand the business of beekeeping, so they have not done it for a long time. Some of the farmers in our network do beekeeping at large scale for commercial purposes, but some just keep bees as a hobby. There are also farmers from counties like Laikipia County, where they experience human wildlife conflict, who keep bees as a form of protection against destruction by wild animals like elephants.
How have the farmers in your network embraced using digital tools in their day-to-day farm activities?
Clinton: Today,a good number of Kenyans can access digital technology. But we also acknowledge that this is not so for many farmers. Because of that, we’ve ensured that the device we have designed can be used by any phone user. For example, we have enabled alerts on SMS texts, so for farmers who own feature phones, using our device is not a challenge. Besides, even bee farmers with traditional bee hives can still use our device
What winning the Youth Direct na Agribiz competition meant for IBees
Clinton: Winning the Youth Direct na Agri Biz competition last year was huge for us. First, it showed us that we are contributing towards improving the lives of farmers and helping increase their produce and in turn their incomes. It also made us know that we are enabling sustainable beekeeping practices and playing a role in bee conservation. We are currently losing bees at a very high rate and this threatens things like food security going forward. The win also enabled us to buy some of the equipment and tools that we needed to take our project to the next level. At the moment, we are doing extensive active learning before we begin to do this at scale, so that win was a great boost for this project.
What are the challenges you’ve experienced when trying to get more bee farmers to use your product?
Clinton: One of the biggest challenges that we have had so far is that some of the components needed to put together our device aren’t sourced locally, and so when we factor in all the costs incurred, the device becomes expensive for the average bee farmer. Because of this, it is difficult to convince a farmer to buy it. So we have invested a lot on our prototype to ensure it works really well before we take it for mass production. And we are hoping that if we produce it at scale, because many farmers will need it, the cost will reduce, making it affordable to many more farmers. At the moment, the device goes for 5000 KSH (USD 50), but after mass production, we are hoping the cost will reduce significantly. And after purchase, the only other cost the farmers will incur will be an annual subscription fee that’s about the price of a jar of honey, like 800-1000 KSH (8-10USD)
What, in your opinion, can be done to make young people consider opportunities in agriculture?
Clinton: As a young person with a technical background, I’ve seen a lot of innovations by young people in the agri-tech field. This is encouraging because it shows young people have an interest in developing innovations that farmers and the agriculture industry can benefit from. And while not all young people can be directly involved in agri-tech, I think there are many opportunities in this industry. The value chain is broader than just taking a jembe and going to dig. And I think if organisations and stakeholders in this industry can make the opportunities available for young people by offering the skills and training required, many young people will take up jobs in this sector.
What’s next for IBees?
Clinton: Like I mentioned, we just expanded into Murang’a County and our goal is to scale beyond Kenya into other beekeeping countries. The challenges bee farmers are facing in Kenya are also common with bee farmers in other countries, so we believe we can help provide a solution. Aside from making profit from selling our device, we want to gather the data we receive from the devices from beehives in different locations and work with institutions to use the data to learn about how we can save our bees. We want to make an impact on our planet through saving the bees because the importance of bees for our environment and to our crops and food systems cannot be understated. So, aside from IBees being something really cool that my two friends and I designed, we want our work to make an impact in the world.