Micro-irrigation technology must be designed to the context of smallholder farmers.
Micro-irrigation technology has been commercially available for many years, but conventional systems are far too sophisticated and expensive to fit the scale of resource-poor smallholder farmers.
In general, drip systems can be designed with following characteristics in mind:
Cost (e.g., materials used, amount of materials used, number of components, source of materials)
Efficiency (e.g., diameter selected that determines how well water flows through the lines, emitter design, pump head)
Power requirements (e.g., gravity-fed versus need for pressurized water, pump energy source)
Simplicity (e.g., fewer components like filters or valves, fewer options)
iDE strives to make drip systems that fit the needs of rural farmers, can be easily adapted by them, and can maximize the limited energy resources found on rural farms.
For example, one of the first things we heard from farmers about drip irrigation was how often the lines and emitters clogged. Drip lines had been designed for water in the US or Europe, which tended to be filtered, even agricultural water. Water in Asia and Africa has more and larger suspended particles. What was needed was an additional filtration system at the inlet to the drip lines.
Case Study: Burkina Faso
Another issue was the size of the drip kits. In Burkina Faso, most kits offered by major manufacturers covered large plots or household gardens, with few options in between. iDE worked with leaders (including The Toro Company) to develop a 500 square meter smallholder option, and with an Indian manufacturer to develop kits for even smaller plot sizes and smaller spacing (40 centimeters between lines instead of 1 meter). From the start of the SUPW project, the Tech Center in Burkina Faso was aiming to develop and market a lineup of low-cost micro-irrigation technologies to support broad-based application in smallholder agriculture, including water lifting, application, and storage technologies.
Starting from 2011, the Burkina Faso team conducted studies to better understand trends in consumer demand. The figure below shows the distribution of drip kits in Burkina Faso sold by size. At the beginning of the program, large kits sized 500 square meters or higher made up over 50 percent of drip kit sales. By 2016, there was a significant shift with over half of kit sales being 100 square meters or less in size.
Adapting the technology to the context is important for smallholder farmers, who can’t afford to overbuy (i.e., have to purchase more equipment than what they can use) or to invest in technology that is inefficient. A promising option is to provide access to smaller, modular kits that enable farmers to start small and then buy additional modules to increase coverage as they become familiar with the technology and increase their incomes.