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How One Woman Hopes to Use Drones to Change Coffee Farming

Lyela Mutisya is ready to build a drone-driven future

July 4, 2017

Grandiose dreams of flying cars and drone deliveries dominate much of the vision of drones’ long-term potential. But while tech giants in Silicon Valley patent drone dirigibles, young aviators are finding quieter, but no less hopeful, ways that unmanned systems can change the way we live — like saving coffee.

Farm (to drone) to cup

Thousands of half-caf lattes and dry cappuccinos seemingly appear from thin air at coffee shops across the U.S. each morning, so one may assume that high-quality coffee is an abundant resource. It’s easy to forget that coffee is a crop — a delicate and difficult one to grow — and that there are, according to the human rights NGO Global Exchange, “approximately 25 million farmers and coffee workers in over 50 countries involved in producing coffee around the world.”

Lyela Mutisya’s father is one of those 25 million coffee workers. Born in Kenya, she moved to the U.S. in 2001. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, and attends college, but in 2014, Mutisya traveled back to Kenya for the first time.

“That’s when I found out my dad had a coffee farm, and I was just really fascinated,” she says.
After visiting her father's coffee farm in Kenya, Lyela Mutisya (second from left) learned he doesn't come away with much money after everything's said and done. Drones could change that.
Shirleen Lembi Mulwa
This was the first spark of her passion for coffee — not just as a drink, but as a way of life. She talked to her father about his experience working on his farm, asking if he made good money through the growth, harvest, and sale of his coffee. The answer was no.

“He makes about $0.20 a pound for his coffee. That’s close to nothing, especially because the coffee gets sold anywhere from $2 to $5 a pound, depending on the quality,” she says. “And that really broke my heart.”

But she wasn’t sure how she could help improve his situation. It wasn’t until she returned to the U.S. for her courses at Lewis University that Mutisya realized that drones were the missing piece — she could use them for precision agriculture on her father’s farm.

Precision agriculture is a method of farming which uses various methods of data collection to produce crops more effectively. Drones are perfect for this application: They are relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and provide actionable data to farmers.

Getting off the ground

At 25, Mutisya is already pushing hard to bring her vision of a drone future to life. This year, she’ll be graduating from Lewis with a bachelor’s degree in aviation administration, minoring in unmanned aircraft systems.

“I had no intention of doing anything in the drone industry,” says Mutisya. “But in fall of 2014, I took an introduction to unmanned aerial systems class, and that’s when I was able to learn the different applications for drones. That’s when the light bulb just turned on.”

Mutisya’s other studies ranged from aviation regulations to meteorology, crew resource management to visual aircraft recognition. While she believes the courses helped her develop her interest in the field and her foundational knowledge, she doesn’t know if they’re necessary for those who are looking to get into drones.

She explains that the more valuable knowledge came from industry events and networking. While attending a panel discussion at Drone World Expo, Mutisya introduced herself to Robert Blair, vice president of agriculture at Measure. Blair took an interest in Mutisya’s vision, helping her understand the use of drones in precision agriculture and encouraging her efforts.

“So far, everyone [in the drone industry] has actually pushed me to not give up on my dream — to keep my dream alive and keep pushing,” Mutisya says.

For now, that means graduating and getting her degree. She’s also hitting the books for her Part 107 exam, which she hopes to take (and pass) this spring. She also explains she was recently offered an internship from an aerial sensing company, which sent her a 3DR Solo and sensors for her to practice flying with.

Lyela Mutisya proudly holds her 3DR Solo drone and MicaSense RedEdge sensor, which she acquired from her internship. Kendall Dale
Creating a buzz

But Mutisya doesn’t only work within the drone industry. She has also worked closely with various major coffee organizations and associations both in the U.S. and Kenya to help build connections and further her knowledge.

In August 2015, Mutisya started her own coffee importing company called Kahawa Yetu, Swahili for “our coffee.” Through Kahawa Yetu, Mutisya helps her father import and sell his coffee in the U.S. — and gains a working knowledge of the complex coffee importing, cupping, and roasting world.

When Mutisya speaks of coffee now, she’s well versed in the challenges that coffee farmers face: destructive pests, expensive fertilizers, and various diseases. These are all detriments to the production of high-quality coffee — and challenges that drones can help with. She explains that Kenya’s coffee production was highest in the late 1980s, but the country’s coffee production has sharply declined since.

She has attended events organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, one of the most respected coffee entities in the country. She says that even when discussing her goals with those in the coffee industry, she receives support.
In 2015, Mutisya started her own coffee importing company called Kahawa Yetu.
Her short-term goal is to help farmers understand drone technology and how it can help them improve their quality, yield, and profits — bringing together the two distinct niche industries of coffee and drones. But in order to accomplish this, she first needs to acquire the necessary permissions from a third distinct group: the Kenyan government.

“I met with the minister of agriculture last year in August,” Mutisya says, “and I proposed to him these ideas using drones for precision agriculture in the coffee sector. He was very intrigued."

Despite the minister’s desire to aid Mutisya in moving forward with her work, there was little that he alone could do to help. Kenya doesn’t have a formal commercial drone framework like Part 107 in place, and with the country’s hesitance to accept the technology, Mutisya has more diplomatic work ahead of her to gain the needed permissions.

“With the help of my father, hopefully that’s something I can achieve before the end of next year [2018],” she says.
Setting waypoints

But Mutisya has goals far beyond gaining permissions. In 10 years, she intends to have her own research and consulting company, enabling farmers and companies in countries across Africa to use drones commercially.

“A lot of people my age in Kenya graduate from college and don’t get jobs,” she says. She hopes that drones will help create new employment opportunities for her peers once the technology becomes more widely understood and accepted within the country.

Mutisya knows that there will be more challenges, but she remains undaunted. “It’s both exciting and scary at the same time,” she says. “But my passion is what keeps me going.”

Note: A version of this story appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Drone360 magazine.
Featured image: pixabay/tracyhammond