Smart farming solutions

Students work cross-culturally to develop smart farming application for South African farmers

Penn State Engineering Leadership Development students work on an irrigation system at a farm in South Africa. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In South Africa, limited farming resources and education, irregular weather, and a lack of fertile lands place constraints on farming capabilities. With only three percent of the country’s soil being considered truly fertile, and extremely low rainfall amounts, growing large quantities of produce is challenging for South African farmers.

Engineering Leadership Development (ELD) minor students are aiming to change that by partnering with students at Belgium Campus iTversity and Corvinus University of Budapest to research and design a smart farming application for South African farmers. Graduate students in ENGR 802: Engineering Across Cultures and Nations also accompanied the undergraduate students on the trip and served as co-leaders, helping finalize project work and presentations.

Students enrolled in the ENGR 422 International Leadership of Engineering and Development course worked to develop an application that could provide smallholder farmers with real-time access to weather reports and farming knowledge, such as biological and environmental data, planting and harvesting timelines, and farming statistics. All information would be available via a mobile application. Data would be provided to the application through web-enabled sensors and communications networks.  

The application was designed for ease of use for the Limpopo region population. Users can easily navigate from the main dashboard to six different functions: weather; water table and rainfall; irrigation; crop growth; soil moisture; and about.

“Access to this information can help the farmers conserve water, implement better resource utilization and maximize their profits,” said Devansh Modi, a senior in computer science completing the ELD minor.

To develop each section of the application, small groups comprised of ELD minor students and students from the Belgium Campus iTversity and the Corvinus University of Budapest completed background and market research on the five different farming-specific functions of the application.

Delaney Padgett, a senior civil engineering major and ELD minor student, worked with four other students to research and design an irrigation management system that collects weather, soil moisture, crop growth and water table levels from sensors in the ground. Data is then sent to a server for dissemination to a computer that controls valves which operate a sprinkler system. When certain weather or soil conditions are recorded, a signal is sent from the computer to open the valves. All information recorded by the sensors is visible within the smart farming application.

For Padgett, working on a virtual team was extremely rewarding, as it provided her with the chance to experience cultures she may not have otherwise.

“It’s important for engineering majors to understand leadership concepts and cultural awareness aspects because it’s something that is becoming more and more prevalent in the professional world,” she said. “By learning and practicing these skills while still in school, we have a head start once we graduate. Math and science are important aspects of engineering, but communications is just as, if not more, vital than those skills. By learning how to lead and to work with those who are different than you, communications skills will definitely improve.”

Zach Zellhart, a junior in computer engineering and an ELD minor student, worked on the team that researched and developed a soil monitoring system powered by a microcontroller, a small computer on a single circuit. The current design calls for a soil moisture measurement to be taken from a sensor that then sends the data over the cellular network to a server hosted by the Belgium Campus iTversity. The data is then accessible via the smart farming application.

Zellhart said working with the students from the Corvinus University of Budapest and the Belgium Campus iTversity to complete the project was very constructive, as all three groups were able to learn from each other.

“To be an engineering leader, you must understand that not everyone is like you. It is impossible for you to work or manage a team that is comprised of individuals that grew up in the same culture as you,” he said. “Learning to recognize, understand and work with others that are different than you is one of the most important skills that you can attain as an engineering leader.”

Students traveled to South Africa during the University's Maymester to present prototypes of their smart farming solutions to stakeholders and farmers in order to receive input and critique on their designs.

Students who enroll in the spring 2018 section of ENGR 422 will use this input and critique to continue to develop prototypes for the smart farming project.

This opportunity was supported by funding secured through an external grant from an IBM Faculty Award, an internal grant from the 2016 - 17 College of Engineering Global Engineering Leadership Program, support from the Stout Family for Advancement of Engineering Education, and the Engineering Leadership Development program.

For more information about the Engineering Leadership Development minor, please visit

Last Updated September 07, 2017