Automated irrigation as a game-changer for farming in sub-Saharan Africa: Is it enough?
This blog highlights the key messages of a presentation by Africa RISING West Africa Program chief scientist, Fred Kizito (IITA) on 11 November 2019 at the 2019 ASA-CSSA-SSSA International Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Approximately 4,000 scientists, professionals, educators, and students attended the meeting whose theme was ‘Embracing the digital environment’.
- In the outskirts of Tanzania’s peri-urban Babati town, the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program worked with farmers to validate a bundled ‘smart irrigation’ technology that includes improved vegetable varieties (tomatoes and sweet pepper), an automated irrigation kit (to save on scarce water and labour), and a low-cost screen house (to keep out pests and diseases).
- After two years of farmers using the smart irrigation, data collected was compared to data gathered from conventional vegetable production methods within the same town. From the findings, it was established that: (a) the greatest gains from embracing the digital environment were realized when bundling was done, (b) the marketable yield for smart irrigation technology was higher (+35%),(c) there was 25% higher gross returns, (d) 35% labour savings, (e) better soil protection from erosion, and (f) there was 30% water savings.
Africa RISING works to provide pathways out of poverty and hunger for smallholder farmers at different scales – both at community and household levels. The project provides locally tailored, demand-driven interventions that are aimed at ensuring that the farm production systems for households and smallholder communities are sustainably intensified. The technologies provided to farmers by Africa RISING address specific threats and real barriers to agricultural production including poor quality seed and degraded soils, labour intensive production systems, inefficient use of resources such as water and fertilizers, as well as low capacity and big knowledge gaps. Currently the project is providing these life-changing interventions to farmers in five countries – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Ghana and Mali. The interventions range from forage-legume combinations, spacing of soil water conservation measures, water harvesting and off-season vegetable production.
One of the project interventions in Tanzania’s Babati town applied a participatory approach working with farmers to roll out and promote resource efficient production of improved tomato and sweet pepper varieties targeting the urban and peri-urban markets. The technology that was validated by the team bundled together improved vegetable varieties, grown is a low-cost screen house (to keep out pests and diseases) and the scarce water resource use was controlled by an automated drip irrigation kit which keeps track of the moisture needs of plants to release water right when the plants need it. Use of sensors in water management has been shown to increase production efficiency in irrigated cropping systems thereby enhancing the profitability of crop enterprises and helping farmers to reduce environmental pollution through reduced nutrient leaching and optimal water use in agricultural systems.
This research-in-development intervention enables farmers to reduce the labour effort required for vegetable production by 35% and save scarce water resources by 30%. Water productivity and economics assessment (tomato and sweet pepper) inside and outside the screen house over two seasons in 2017 and 2018 demonstrated that drip irrigation increased yield (40%; 25%) and water productivity (15%; 20%) of sweet pepper and tomato vegetables, respectively, both inside and outside of screen houses compared to conventional irrigation involving the use of watering cans. Higher yields (+20%) were, nevertheless, observed outside than inside screen houses. Higher marketable produce (+35%) was observed inside the screen house following a greater pest and disease pressure (20%) that led to higher incidence of vegetable damage (+15%) for crops grown outside screen houses compared to those inside. For both vegetable crops, gross returns were 25% higher under drip irrigation. Overall, tomato cultivation under drip irrigation resulted in higher economic outcomes (+20%) compared to sweet pepper.
The gross returns were insufficient to offset the higher capital investment within the first season but with the higher labour dividends (35%) associated with the use of the automated irrigation kit, farmers were only able to break even in the second year. Also, worth noting is the fact that altogether the screen house and the automated drip irrigation kit can be used by a farmer for at least seven years, therefore breaking even in the second year allows the farmer a good five years ‘playing with the house money’!