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by Sofia Villegas
04 March 2024
Scottish university designing affordable tech to tackle food insecurity

New affordable sensors to help enhance international agriculture

Scottish university designing affordable tech to tackle food insecurity

A Scottish university is developing a low-cost sensor system to boost food security in Kenya.

Researchers from the University of Strathclyde are creating technology capable of detecting nutrients in soil to enhance its fertility.

The new sensors would allow farms to test for the most depleted soil macro-nutrients in Kenya: nitrate and phosphate.

Scientists from the Kenyatta University in Nigeria and printing specialists at Glasgow School of Art will collaborate with Strathclyde to develop the sensor in the UK.

Once developed, the sensor will be re-created in Kenya, where it will be tested in greenhouse trials.

Exhausted and nutrient-poor soil is one of the key impediments to high crop yields, a situation which has worsened as the growing population has pushed farmers into drier, lower-quality land areas vulnerable to drought.

To date, the scarcity and high cost of soil fertility tools have made them inaccessible.

However, using natural resources has allowed these new sensors to be cost-effective and sustainable.

The system is inspired by the ancient art and design-based printing processes such as wood blocking, combined with local materials and enzymes from local plants and bacteria to make it affordable.

Lead researcher Dr Andrew Ward said: “Instead of printing art, we are going to borrow these techniques, but combine them with functional materials, such as carbon black and enzymes to make biodegradable single use sensors.

“We want to see if we can make a sensor using only resources that are available local to the farm – for example, could we use yesterday’s newspaper, some egg yolk as a binder, carbon black from chimney soot and some plant-based proteins to produce the sensors.

“Ultimately, we aim to create novel zero-waste sensor for nitrate and inorganic phosphate that can be manufactured entirely in-country for easy use on farms to provide timely information on soil fertility needs. The long-term goal of the technology is to build sustained capacity in Kenya to improve soil fertility, crop yields and therefore food security.”

Currently, more than eight in ten people in Kenya are dependent upon agriculture for employment, income, or food security – yet food insecurity remains one of the biggest problems in the country with more than a quarter of children under five suffering from malnutrition, according to Unicef.

Funded by the International Science Partnerships Fund, awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation, the system has the potential to influence a wider region, with 20 million people across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia being food insecure and facing similar challenges.

It is also hoped in the long term, sensors will be delivered to farmers as a “factory in a box” containing the tools needed for sensor manufacture, or as an information pack that shows how to gather the resources required and print sensors.

Researchers added the project could support the manufacturing of nature-based and zero-waste sensors for UK agriculture, helping the transition to net zero. Scotland aims to reach the net zero by 2045 – five years before the rest of the UK.

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