12 winning innovations set to shrink farming’s water footprint

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Dripping tap: smart water management is a crucial part of agriculture, now more than ever.
Smart water management is a crucial part of agriculture - now more than ever.
Faungg's Photos, Flickr CC

Water, already in short supply, will be an increasingly scarce and high-value commodity in coming decades. According to OECD report Water: The Environmental Outlook to 2050 (2011), the world’s demand for water is set to increase by 55 percent in the next 34 years, while water markets in developing nations are expected to grow by more than 10 percent in the next five to 10 years.

The revenues of water-related businesses focused on disruptive technologies are predicted to grow from US$522 billion to a staggering US$1 trillion by 2020. At the rate we’re going, according to Goldman Sachs, water will be “the petroleum of the next century”.

Agriculture currently accounts for 70 percent of water demand globally, and 55 percent of traditional irrigation water is wasted. Which is where initiatives such as Securing Water for Food (SWFF) step in.

What is SWFF?

Launched just three years ago, Securing Water for Food (SWFF) is a model of foreign assistance that employs a competitive process to identify and invest in a portfolio of innovative game water-saving solutions. It is a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (MFA-NL) and, more recently, South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

“Almost a billion people on this don't have enough to eat,” says Christian Holmes, global water coordinator at USAID. “By combining the resources and support of the private and public sectors with innovations from some of the world's brightest thinkers, Securing Water for Food is making great strides to combat this challenge.”

SWFF’s first global water-saving Innovation Challenge and Desal Prize

SWFF announced its first US$15 million call for proposals in November 2013, with the focus on identifying “market-driven, low-cost, and scalable solutions that … improve water efficiency and wastewater reuse; enhance water capture and storage; and reduce the impacts of salinity on aquifers and food production”, SWFF said. All entries had to be viable, piloted, water-saving projects from emerging nations with potential to benefit agri-producers, including women, in the world’s poorer regions. Sixteen first-round Innovation Challenge winners each received between US$100,000 and US$3 million in funding and acceleration support.

The Desal Prize, announced on World Water Day 2014, aimed to “incentivise the creation of a small-scale brackish water desalination unit that can provide potable water for humans, as well as water appropriate for livestock and crops in developing countries”. A total of US$400,000 in funding was awarded to two winning innovations and a runner-up.

SWFF’s latest water-saving solutions

In March 2015, SWFF made its third global call for innovations, offering US$12.5 million for water-saving solutions, this time with an increased focus on “cutting-edge, advanced technologies and business models as well as innovations that prioritise the engagement of women”. An additional US$2.5 million was pledged for innovations implemented in the Middle East (MENA) region.

The third-round SWFF Innovation Challenge awardees were announced, after much deliberation, at Amsterdam International Water Week in November 2015. Twelve candidates were selected from a field of more than 400 applicants originating from 67 countries. The awardees, stated SWFF, display “the highest potential for success with their post-pilot, water-for-food innovations”.

Among them are game-changing technologies, ‘smart’ farming systems, irrigation breakthroughs and new business models that are set to promote water and food security around the world, particularly in underdeveloped nations. Whet your appetites for water-saving with a look at their water-saving solutions.

12 winning water innovations 

1.    Slurry-separation system
Green Heat Uganda Ltd – Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda
Despite the benefits to energy security, air quality, public health, increased crop yields and reduced input costs of turning organic waste into methane and fertiliser, most farmers abandon digesters within a year due to water demands. Green Heat Uganda Ltd’s new slurry-separation system vastly reduces the water demands of anaerobic digesters by creating a solid, easy-to-handle fertiliser that increases gas production and kills pathogens.

2.    Aquaponics for smallholder farmers  
Water Governance Institute (WGI) – Uganda
Water Governance Institute’s water-saving aquaponic farming system enables small-scale producers to cultivate plants and fish simultaneously in a closed-loop, water-recycling system. Crops are grown in a permeable tray, with fish reared in a water tank beneath. The fish waste is used as fertiliser for the plants, reducing costly inputs and increasing efficiency, outputs and incomes for smallholder farmers.

3.    EcoRangers and Meat Naturally: Communal Grazing System  
Conservation South Africa - Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa
Conservation South Africa’s innovative business model combines ecological science, market interest in sustainable meat and a government job creation program in a communal grazing system that boosts water and food security and unlocks the economic and environmental potential of rural communities. The system includes training Eco-Rangers, supporting market access for producers, and incentivising local cattle herders to improve degraded rangelands and restore catchment areas through sustainable grazing practices.

4.    Waterpads
MetaMeta Research B.V.- Ethiopia and Turkey
MetaMeta Research BV’s patented Centre for Environment Concernssecure precious water, enabling peri-urban farmers and refugees to grow food even where water for agriculture is scarce or non-existent. The company’s low-cost, lightweight polymer pads save and store water at the plants’ root level, generating additional growth for indoor and outdoor crops of all varieties. The technology could go a long way towards solving water and food inequity problems affecting farmers and refugees in arid regions globally.
5.    SWAR: Subsurface Drip Irrigation System
Centre for Environment Concerns - Ethiopia and India
The Centre for Environment Concerns’ SWAR is the world’s first sub-surface drip irrigation system that releases moisture when ‘asked’ for by the crop”. It works by placing permeable clay pots at a plant’s root zone. The pots are connected to an overhead drip line, which releases water only when the plant requires it, maintaining just the right amount of soil moisture. The SWAR system has the potential to improve irrigation practices in drought-prone areas of India and other nations, reducing water stress on arable lands and alleviating rural poverty.

6.    AgroSolar Irrigation Technology
Islamic Relief Kenya (IRK) - Kenya
Islamic Relief Kenya plans to scale up SunCulture’s AgroSolar Irrigation kit, a solar PV-powered drip irrigation system tailored to the needs of small-holder farmers, via agricultural extension services in Mandera County, Kenya, helping those in areas of greatest need grow high-value fresh fruits and vegetables. Currently, 83 percent of Kenya’s arable land is unsuitable for rain-fed agriculture, but only four percent of it is under irrigation. The AgroSolar system bundles solar-PV-powered irrigation with the technical expertise of agronomists and smallholder farmer financing to ensure “more land is used efficiently”.

7.     Buried Diffuser: An Underground Irrigation System
Institute for University Cooperation (ICU) - Tunisia
In arid lands such as those of North African nation Tunisia, the persistent challenge of water scarcity has been exacerbated in recent decades by climate change and rapid urbanisation. To address this increasingly serious issue, Tunisia’s Institute for University Cooperation has developed a Buried Diffuser (BD). ICU’s ground-breaking subterranean irrigation system transports water to the root systems of plants via gravity and water pressure, irrigating two to three times the land volume of traditional drip methods, saving significant amounts of water and energy. It has been specifically designed for agriculture in arid and semi-arid zones, and can be used in paddocks and protected cropping facilities.

8.    Irrigation Scheduling System
Institute for University Cooperation (ICU) – Peru
ICU’s irrigation scheduling system measures local air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, intensity of solar radiation, and rain via a regional climate station, aggregates this data in a GIS platform, then offers local farmers tailored recommendations on when and how much to irrigate via text, e-mail or tablet.

9.    NewSil
Si Technologies International B.V. –  India and South Africa
In NewSil, Si Technologies has found a way to stabilise notoriously volatile silicic acid that allows food crops to absorb the abundant – and hugely beneficial – element silicon. In field trials, spraying food-crop plants with NewSil reduced their overall water consumption by 30 to 50 percent, increased drought tolerance (by maintaining plant water balance), promoted greater photosynthetic activity, and improved the erectness of leaves and xylem vessel structures under high rates of transpiration. Safe, low-cost, eco-friendly NewSil makes for greater plant resiliency, essentially creating “more food with less water”.

10.    M-Fodder: Less Water, More Fodder
Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems and Societies (CSDES) – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda
Capitalising on the fact that 80 percent of Kenyan livestock farmers own mobile phones, M-Fodder, dubbed ‘Amazon for fodder’, helps small-holder livestock farmers outsource for eco-friendly green fodder. Using M-fodder, local farmers can send text messages to a local centre that links them to hydroponic fodder producers, enabling them to receive timely stock-feed shipments in seven days or less. The project promotes the use and thus the production of hydroponic fodder, which requires less water to yield more – and more nutritious – feed.

11.    Groasis Waterboxx  
Institute for University Cooperation (ICU) - Jordan
The Institute for University Cooperation’s “integrated planting technology”, the Groasis Waterboxx (GW), collects dew and rainwater in water columns underneath young plants, from whence it can be distributed over a long period, avoiding evaporation. Placing GWs around young plants enables fruit, fodder trees and shrubs to flourish even on degraded farmland and rangelands. The technology can be used to generate groundcover to stabilise eroded soils, build up organic matter in depleted ones, and provide valuable nutrient sources for humans and animals.

12.    Mobile Weather Forecasts
Ignitia AB - Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal
Few current global weather-forecast models yield accurate forecasts for tropical regions, but Africa-based Ignitia has developed a highly precise weather model that helps farmers in the tropics determine optimal times to sow, fertilise and harvest crops in order to maximise water availability and crop yield. Now, the company plans to scale its services to provide farmers with highly localised meteorological forecasts, including accurate seasonal forecasts of rainfall and water availability. The new model will help tropical farmers manage daily activities, improve crop yields and optimise food production.

What next for the winners?

Awardees receive grants of anywhere between US$100,000 and US$3 million, along with substantial ‘acceleration’ support, to bring their innovations to scale. Once they’re available commercially, some of these innovations will likely prove useful to farmers in regions with scarce or erratic water supplies – which, these days, make up a significant portion of first-world agricultural acreage.

Certainly, those of us on drought-stricken farms and rangeland across Australia could benefit from adopting some of the SWFF-backed innovations. We at AgInnovators will be tracking their progress with interest.

Round 4 innovations

The fourth round of the SWF competition opened in mid-August 2016, calling for new solutions that "enable the production of more food with less water or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution". The three areas SWF deems critical to reducing water scarcity in the food value chain are:

  • improving water efficiency and reusing agricultural wastewater to significantly extend the productivity of limited water resources;
  • effective water capture and storage systems for extending the temporal availability of water supply in regions where rainfall is seasonal; and
  • management of salinity in water supplies (as salinity is a major threat to food production).

For more information, application requirements and deadlines, visit the Round 4 application page on SWF's website. Applications close at 5pm EST on 10 October 2016. 

More information

For more information about the Securing Water for Food program and previous winning innovations, visit SWFF's website and follow @SecuringWater on Twitter.

SOURCES: Securing Water for Food; USAID press office.

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