Buzz Farm’s drones to the rescue

In early 2018, Anesu Mapisa walked out of the gates of Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in agronomy and a vision.

His peers began looking for employment in the agricultural sector, one of the best paying in Zimbabwe, but Mapisa’s mind was elsewhere; he wanted to innovate and transform the lives of farmers.

Instead of knocking on the doors for a dream job, Mapisa talked to a classmate and friend, Emmanuel Marume, about the idea of partnering as entrepreneurs. Marume bought into the idea and, in 2018, they registered their company, Farm Buzz. 

“Even though we did not have the capital to plunge into business, this was a dream come true; first, we needed to figure out how to help the farmers increase their yields,” Mapisa said.

For Mapisa, the decision to focus on helping farmers increase their yields was informed by personal experiences. “I was raised on a farm in Macheke, so my parents were farming at a low level, and it was not producing much. I wanted to bring solutions to subsistence farmers, including my parents, so they can efficiently produce a lot of food, which can sustain the family and the farm.”

With the growing trend of young people in cities running farms in rural areas, the partners recognised that many were suffering losses and needed knowledge and hands-on advice from people. 

These “telephone farmers” were spending a lot of time and money on manually spraying pesticides and herbicides, without getting the results they were paying for.

Mapisa and Marume turned to social media to teach efficiency in farming and to seek clients.

“We worked on the company from scratch, without capital, without anything; we just started doing consultancy on Instagram and Facebook and grew from there,” said Mapisa, 22. “We promote smart farming in Zimbabwe through best agronomy practices and agrotechnology.”

Most of their consultancy work in the early days was farm management and season budgeting. 

Fairly early on, the two entrepreneurs recognised the opportunity to use drones to increase efficiency on the farms they were being employed to consult on, particularly when it came to weed control.

But then, the lack of capital hurdle straddled the path of this young company. A basic crop-spraying drone costs about $10 000. 

Undeterred, they opted to seek collaborations. The first was with Alley Capital Group, a firm that had just entered the Zimbabwean market with drone technology. A partnership was born and in 2019; Farm Buzz introduced drones to the market. Since then, they have provided pesticide coverage over 500 hectares, mostly on small-scale farms.

“Many farmers are losing money, using other traditional methods like knapsack sprayers and boom sprayers, which are costly and inefficient,” Marume said. “They are losing a lot of chemicals through these methods. Knapsacks are heavy, and you need more workforce. For example, one person can spray one hectare a day, using a knapsack, but with a drone, one hectare can be done in 15 to 30 minutes.”

Mapisa said the services they provide end up being cheaper; Farm Buzz charges $21 a hectare, while commercial farmers who use boom sprayers pulled by tractors pay about $75 a hectare.

The company also uses drones for farm mapping and scouting, helping farmers know the exact size of their fields for proper planning and resource use.

Although there has been an increasing interest in the drone option, farmers did not immediately accept the technology. Traditional methods and experience stood in their way. 

“My father, for instance, who has been farming for 20 years, uses the old methods such as knapsacks and boom sprayers because these have served him well over the years,” Mapisa said. 

So the duo had to spend a lot of time telling farmers about the efficiency, time-saving and cost-effectiveness of using drones. Today they are winning hearts — and wallets — as farmers increasingly accept the new technology.

Among them is Louise Musungwa, who runs a farm in Nyabira, a settlement of agricultural plots on the western outskirts of Harare.

She began farming after retiring from nursing and has been at it for five years. She lives in Harare but drives to Nyabira to oversee her projects.

“I was born on a farm; my father had a farm in Masvingo, but I never liked farming. After school, I went and did nursing, and I worked as a nurse, mostly abroad, until I retired and returned home,” she said.

“I decided to revisit my youth where I was forced to do farming. So, I started farming. I have been farming for five years, and because I didn’t have the land, I just rent from those who have unused land.” 

After embracing drone technology to farm, she is seeing better returns from her 10 hectares. Previously, it would take her workers weeks to complete the weeding, forcing her to commute from the city daily.

“I was using people, and they were cheating me: most of them were just not serious, they were interested in money, not the yield and health of crops,” Musungwa said.

Musungwa also used a tractor to spray but was not happy with the outcome. “I like to be on the ground, ensuring that things are being done by the book, instructing where I can,” she said. “With drones, I can sacrifice a day and know that I am done with an activity.” 

Mapisa said drone technology can also assist people who are no longer physically able to do the manual work.

He says the company’s footprint in Zimbabwe could have been bigger, had it not been for the infrastructure limitations that sometimes stand in their way. “Some of the technology we are bringing requires wi-fi and here in Zimbabwe, data is costly; it is difficult to bring technology to some of these farms.”

Mapisa says his company is helping to bring Zimbabwe closer to the food security the country is striving for. “We improve the yield, starting from planning, drafting the correct budget. We go to the production side; we follow all the good agronomic practices that a farmer must follow to produce high yields. By doing that, we can increase yields by ten tonnes per hectare, using precise agronomic practices that our old farmers are not using.”

In 2020, Buzz Farm won the BancABC StartUp of the Year award.

“We have been in numerous start-up challenges; some we managed to be among finalists. Our biggest award so far has been from BancABC,” said Mapisa.

Mapisa and Marume now want to take Farm Buzz continental.

“In Zambia, there are good climatic conditions, good soils, and good farms, so we will start with Zambia, then go upwards to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Mapisa said.

He said he believes Africa’s food security needs can be provided for if farmers’ capacity is increased. 

“I believe this is where the world is going; technology is there to assist us in our farming operations,” he said, predicting that in 10 years, drones would be a mainstay of farming on the continent. — bird

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