In a couple of days time I am heading back to South India for the first time since I worked there over 10 years ago. Back to one of my favourite places in the world, Kerala.
In August, parts of the state experienced the worst flooding for nearly a hundred years, brought about by extremely heavy monsoon rains. Dams were at risk from being overtopped, and the necessary release of water made things worse downstream.
The immediate humanitarian disaster and resulting relief effort was well-covered in the media, and climate change was of course highlighted as a probable factor. But what is less visible is the ongoing economic damage due to massive destruction of crops.
India, and Kerala in particular, is a state of small-holder farmers who operate in co-operatives to grow and sell their crops.
When you buy tea, coffee, or spices like cardamom, turmeric or saffron from a huge company like Tesco, who in turn buy it from a giant company like Tata, they actually buy it from a guy who lives in a tiny house amongst his farmland and sells along with his neighbours to the distributors. They of course, get the thin slice of the economic wedge, and are very vulnerable to the effects of Climate Change. But things are changing. With the internet, trade deals can be made from every corner of the world, prices of crops negotiated and data trends used to demonstrate future viability.
I am working with startup Climate Edge, a London-based climate data consultancy that specialises in smallholder farming, to leverage the power of connected devices and the ubiquity of the humble 2G GSM network to open up the power of real-time climate data trends to the smallest of co-operative farmers.
By using low-cost data gathering tools that can be easily installed and maintained by the farmers, devices like this can empower them with the data to bolster their market position, and advise them on mitigating the effects of Climate Change by making small adjustments – for example, improving drainage when trends show increasing rainfall, planting shade crops in areas that experience less cloudy conditions or better suiting planted varieties to the local temperature trends.
The key to this enabler is not to force the small-holder to foot the cost of the infrastructure and data analysis. Although they are the obvious customer of this climate data, they represent the product. The customer – the real customer of their products – are the large international buyers, who are the ones buying the data analysis, and subsidising the system.
Torbett Design has provided services to Climate Edge by developing the NEXO weather station hardware and firmware. The NEXO utilises a low-power ARM Cortex processor interfaced to the various internal and external climate sensors. A local RF link allows additional sensors such as rain gauges to be added without wires. GPS is used to locate the unit accurately on maps, and automatically update its location should the unit need to be moved, without the farmer having to survey or deal with mapping tools. Finally, a simple 2G GSM link uses a global SIM to transmit small but hourly data updates on any local cellular network. Should there be a cellular outage, the unit can store several months’ data for automatic upload when it is able to connect. A small but robust solar panel and charge management system keeps two generic Lithium 18650 cells topped up, these batteries are available globally should they need replacing. The entire system is built on a simple two-layer PCB which can easily be fault-found and repaired if necessary to reduce electronic waste.