The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) confirms closure by end of 2020.
Leading image

On-the-spot, easy and affordable soil testing for Kenyan smallholder farmers

Africa is facing an escalating soil fertility crisis and without immediate interventions, the continent continues to lose over €3,5 billion per year worth of nutrients. To increase productivity whilst decreasing soil fertility decline, balanced fertilisation is essential. Farmer cooperatives using soil scanners to provide real-time fertiliser recommendations to farmers may be part of the solution. AgroCares and Agriterra present their findings from a soil sensor services pilot for farmer cooperatives in Kenya. 

In 2017, AgroCares launched a Near InfraRed (NIR) soil scanner in Kenya, which gives farmers real-time information on the nutrient status of their soil. An app translates the soil data on the spot into fertiliser recommendations for the selected crops. November 2018, AgroCares and Agriterra executed a joint evaluation on the use of the soil scanner at cooperative and farmer level, to identify success factors, possible bottlenecks and the added value of innovative soil testing services for farmers. The results seem promising: farmers have reported higher fertiliser efficiency, increased yields and, in general, willingness to pay for scans.

Soil scanner services through farmer cooperatives

In Africa, many farmers lack on-site soil and crop information and base their fertiliser selection on intuition or on tacit knowledge and advice from local agro dealers, without knowing the actual nutrient status of their soils. This can result in a mismatch between applied nutrients and required nutrients for productive soils. More so, applying non-limiting nutrients results in economic losses and environmental degradation. What is needed, is real-time information on the nutrient status of soils for informed decision-making on fertilisation. Worldwide, only about 5% of the farmers have access to reliable soil testing information. Conventional soil test laboratories are expensive and testing is done off field, advice is often complex and delivered with delay. But recent technological innovations in IT, sensor technology and machine learning, have opened up new possibilities.

AgroCares, a Dutch agro-tech company, works through a network of service providers who offer soil testing services to their networks of farmers. Since its release in 2017, 200 soil scanners were sold to various organisations, including input suppliers, agro dealers, NGOs and farmer cooperatives and unions in Kenya. The service providers buy the scanner for €3,000 and a license for a specific application, for example the ‘advisor application’ of €1,800 per year, with unlimited use of the database. The cooperatives offer soil testing as a service to their members and charge approximately €5 to 8 per report.

Booking success with the right business model

For their evaluation, AgroCares and Agriterra conducted interviews with board members, managers, extension officers, input shop officers and farmers linked to three Kenyan primary cooperatives and one cooperative union:

  • Meru Central Coffee Cooperative Union: 98.000 active members, 5 scanners, 5 operators, 1876 clicks in 13 months
  • Tarakwo Dairy Cooperative Society: 3.000 active members, 1 scanner, 192 clicks in 20 months
  • Olkalou Dairy Ltd.: 6.000 active members, 2 scanners, 2 operators, 118 clicks in 18 months
  • Tulaga Farmers Cooperative Society: 1878 active members, 1 scanner, 2 operators, 26 clicks in 2 months

Farmers interviewed indicated positive experiences with the scan, but it takes at least six months of investing to get these results. Cooperatives can achieve a breakeven point within one year. Soil testing gives members of organisations superior value: the costs of the scan are compensated by reduced input expenses due increased efficiency and increased yields and higher return of investment.

The evaluation further showed that the main implementation challenges were ‘non-technical’. Farmers may have limited or no availability to recommended inputs and for the cooperatives, logistics of collecting soil samples and communicating fertiliser recommendation can be challenging. Furthermore, a majority of farmers has no knowledge about the importance of soil testing and extension officers have insufficient knowledge to provide tailored advice to farmers based on a scan. It is not easy to find motivated promoter farmers and to retain qualified operators. Finally, some cooperatives have indicated they don’t feel ownership and involvement over a soil scanner purchased with donor support.

A critical success factor for the implementation of soil scanner services, are the management and board of a cooperative. They need to be aware of the business potential and value for cooperatives and farmers and prepare a professional soil testing services business approach, supported by a SMART business and operational plan. The evaluation shows this is not always the case. After-sales support for technical challenges, coaching of operators and providing promotion materials are also important. The evaluation team therefore developed two tools to support a sound introduction of soil testing services at cooperatives-level: a pricing mechanism calculation model for cooperatives to know real costs, price setting, break-even point and profit; and a services model distinguishing four phases spread over two years to systematically reach out to the innovators and early adaptors.

The way forward

The soil scanner is a disruptive innovation and changes the way soil testing used to be done. Consequently, bringing an innovation to scale needs time and continuous support. Critical to the success is the position of the service providers, in this case the farmer cooperatives. They are well placed institutions to offer soil testing as they have an extension system in place and know their members. On-the-spot soil testing benefits the farmer as well as the cooperative’s business. It is fast, affordable and productive, but to make it efficient, it is recommended that a cooperative has at least 1000-1500 members and sees the soil testing service as a business. Cooperatives should have their own input supply shop (or a good network) and have a check off payment system. They can even make soil testing compulsory for their members as a condition to supply to the cooperative (this works for example for coffee) or to have access to inputs. The next step for the scanner is to integrate soil test information in platforms for data analysis, e.g. by financial institutions or governmental bodies. AgroCares and Agriterra will continue their partnership and work on the two models and implementation of the scanner in other African countries.

Read More

by , , and

In order to feed 9 billion people by 2050, sustainable agricultural growth in needed, supporting an agricultural sector which produces enough food, which is inclusive and resilient, and which makes optimal use of innovation and digital solutions. Smallholder and family farmers must play a key role in achieving this. A 80% of the world’s food supply is produced by small-scale and family farmers, yet their full production potential is hardly reached.


A digital farmer profiling initiative, which enables coffee to be traced back to its roots, is paying off for smallholder farmers in Uganda. NUCAFE’s David Muwonge describes how coffee produced under the scheme is fetching far higher prices, revealing the strong potential of geo-referencing as a marketing tool to guarantee authenticity and origin.


Agriculture is back at the top of Africa’s development agenda, enjoying the support of governments and attracting heavy investments from private sectors. Many of smallholder farmers across Africa that are central to the agricultural transformation taking shape on the continent, however, struggle to benefit from these developments due to their dispersed, small-scale and unorganised nature. Aggregation of smallholder farmers’ needs may provide the solution, says Norbert Tuyishime of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF).

by and

Marc Ghislain Bappa Se and Nestor Ngouambe discuss opportunities for farmers’ organisations to harness data-driven agriculture to facilitate market access for smallholder farmers in Cameroon. Taking the PIDMA project as an example, they argue that supporting farmers’ organisations’ capacity to capitalise on data is crucial for farmers to efficiently and effectively tap into the ‘data value chain’ sphere.


How can we ensure that drought is no longer an outright disaster to smallholder farmers in Africa, but instead a manageable risk? With low-cost satellite-based index insurance products that monitor climatic conditions in near real-time and automatically trigger a pay-out when conditions are below normal. This helps farmers secure necessary credit for inputs, recover faster from bad seasons and sustainably improve their livelihoods.


A spatial data management system to profile tea farmers and map tea plots among members of the Igara Tea Growers Factory (IGTF) in Uganda has led to increased access to financial services for producers, and higher repayment rates for input loans. An immediate impact has been increased productivity and a dramatic fall-off in the practice of side-selling – so much so that other tea companies are now considering adopting the model.

by , , and

Africa is facing an escalating soil fertility crisis and without immediate interventions, the continent continues to lose over €3,5 billion per year worth of nutrients. To increase productivity whilst decreasing soil fertility decline, balanced fertilisation is essential. Farmer cooperatives using soil scanners to provide real-time fertiliser recommendations to farmers may be part of the solution. AgroCares and Agriterra present their findings from a soil sensor services pilot for farmer cooperatives in Kenya. 

by , and

The remote arid and semi-arid Lands of Northern Kenya are dominated by pastoralist livestock production and are constantly threatened by prolonged droughts. Destocking, restocking and moving their herd to grazing areas are a key coping strategy for herders. Yet in times of stress, herders often find themselves selling stock at low prices. The challenge of accessing information serves is a key constraint for pastoralist communities to make informed decisions and manage risks.


Past issues

ICT Update N. 91

Next-generation ACP agriculture - innovations that work

ICT Update N. 90

Women and Digitalisation in Agriculture

ICT Update N. 89

Data4Ag: New opportunities for organised smallholder farmers

ICT Update N. 88

Unlocking the potential of blockchain for agriculture

View all