Optimum harvest with exactly enough water
There is no agriculture without water and farmers throughout the world use irrigation to try to keep their fields healthy. But a closer look makes clear that this could often be done far more efficiently, with much higher yields possible with less water. This is the goal of senior researcher Jochen Froebrich and his team of Wageningen University & Research (WUR).
WHY THIS RESEARCH?
The lack of practical knowledge about irrigation leads to unnecessarily low yields or even failed harvests in Africa.
Better harvests via clever irrigation. By using apps that translate the knowledge available at WUR into more simpler and more useful messages and actions for thousands of African farmers.
“Irrigation is quite simple in principle as you make the soil wet every time it dries out,” Froebrich says. “At least that is how many farmers in Africa think about the process. But the crux is to guarantee a harvest without using too much already-scarce water. We want to make the knowledge on this topic available at WUR as widely applicable as possible. The goal is to provide advice to farmers in such a way that they can get an 80 per cent greater harvest by using 20 per cent less water.”
‘We ultimately want to know the right amount of ‘drops per crops’ for each farmer’
That sounds great but how does it work in practice? “We need to translate all of the knowledge in this area that we have in Wageningen into very simple messages and applications,” Froebrich explains. “In other words, we need to first calculate the exact irrigation need of each crop under diverse circumstances and then translate that into concrete actions for individual farmers. For example, we can tell them that they can wait so many days after heavy rainfall before irrigating the crops in their fields. Instead of saying ‘you need 80 millilitres of water for the tomatoes at this moment’, we would tell them ‘you need so many litres per plant’. Farmers should not have to calculate anything themselves anymore.”
Local farmer organisations, University of Development Studies (Ghana),Eijkelkamp Foundation
A soil irrigation system. Photo: Shutterstock
“We also want to use the app and smartphone boom in Africa within our project. Together with farmers, we can create participative apps that work for them and provide correct, understandable visualisations, parameters and messages. And we can include all sorts of information under the hood with regard to things like climate change or other complex issues. All this would be used to create the simple advice that farmers receive in their own language and terms they understand via their smartphones. If possible, this would also be linked to real-time information like the local weather forecast. We already have all the technology and knowledge required.”
APPS AND SMARTPHONES FOR SIMPLE ADVICE
According to Froebrich, the hard part is to make all of the available information applicable in practice. “The biggest challenge is to include the local farmers in the development of the apps and have decide for themselves what information they wish to access at a given moment. This would ensure they really use the information. My own eureka moment in this project came when I realised that we make information tools here at WUR that enable people to read precisely how much water a crop needs, but that no one had thought about how to also add the rain factor to this – let alone combine it with the conditions of the local soil and seasonal changes. This is what we want to do now.”
The data device/groundwater meter shows the moisture content of the soil. Photo: Shutterstock
To begin with, Froebrich and his team would like to work with a number of farmers to set up a demo next to their own fields, making clearly visible the effect of the advice given versus the usual way of working. Parallel to this, they can work with the farmers on variants of the apps that can then be used in the experimental settings. “We ultimately want to know the right amount of ‘drops per crops’ for each farmer. I find the idea of reducing a lot of complex information and knowledge to a simple solution exciting. I am also irritated by the fact that we have given so little attention to this in academia. Let us use the instruction manual of the IKEA Billy bookcase as a point of departure for bringing our knowledge to people so that what we discover and conceive at WUR is of actual value for everyone.”
DR JOCHEN FROEBRICH
Senior researcher Water Food and Inclusive Growth, Wageningen University & Research
Hydrology, Irrigation and drainage, Water management, Co-innovative processes
Photo: Gea Hogeveen