October 17, 2013

Commentary - Technological innovation for small-plot farms

This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.


By Peter Frykman
Peter Frykman is the Founder and CEO of Driptech. He received his BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University, where he focused on manufacturing and design. He is vitally concerned with the challenge of water scarcity, especially in developing countries. 

Globally, over 2 billion people rely on small-plot farming for their primary livelihood.  In order to effectively address global poverty and food security challenges we must improve productivity and profitability of these small-plot farms.  This requires the adaption or complete redesign of technologies to specifically fit the needs of these customers.  Let’s take the case of irrigation in India as an example.

India is home to 16% of the world’s population but has access to only 4% of the water resources.  Sixty percent of India’s population relies on agriculture as their primary livelihood, and 85% of these are small-plot farms.  As the per capita availability of water decreases, small-plot farmers are among the worst affected by water scarcity.  Today, smallholder families already make up more than half of the country’s hungry and poor.

The major challenge for small-plot farmers is often the lack of access to appropriate irrigation methods. Instead they rely on rainfall and wasteful flood irrigation. Erratic rains and depletion of ground water force farmers to use their limited water resources as efficiently as possible. Without access to better irrigation solutions, the productivity of small-plot farms will remain very low, leaving them vulnerable to uncertain incomes and hunger.

Drip irrigation presents a proven solution to alleviate the effects of water scarcity in India. By enabling water savings of up to 75% and energy savings of up to 45%, drip irrigation should be among the most attractive technologies for farmers. With drip irrigation, a farmer can irrigate twice the amount of land with the same water resources, leading to at least double the income. Weeds are reduced, as is the need for herbicides. However, despite its enormous advantages, it has reached only 2-3% of India’s farms over the past 30 years.

The major barriers to widespread adoption of drip irrigation are the prohibitive cost of existing drip irrigation systems and their complicated nature and/or poor quality. Traditional drip irrigation systems are usually designed for use with highly filtered water at high pressure, which most small-plot farms in India do not have access to.  As a result, smallholders continue to rely on flood irrigation techniques that impair yield and income.

Recognizing the need for affordable drip irrigation, my company, Driptech has been working to provide low-cost systems to smallholders across India, China and Africa.  We see affordability as a key factor in making new technology available to small-plot farmers.  To increase the penetration of drip irrigation, we developed a proprietary laser manufacturing technology and resulting drip irrigation system which can be made and delivered at just 25% of the cost of traditional drip irrigation systems. Transportation, installation and removal are hassle-free, which is a huge advantage for farmers who may not have access to extra help or labor, particularly in deep rural pockets.

Introducing new technologies to low-income customers requires not only that the product be manufactured at low cost, but also that it be delivered at low cost. We recently launched the first portable, all-in-one, Do-It-Yourself, one-acre drip irrigation system. This system dramatically reduces the cost of delivery and increases the number of possible distributors. The system is very user friendly - a farmer can install such a system on his own in under three hours and maintain it without needing any technical assistance. Being an off-the-shelf product, it can be stocked and distributed anywhere and does not require sophisticated sales support.

Smallholders that we work with have heartening stories of success to share. The increased yield and additional income from drip irrigation not only assure them of food security, but also provide them with the money to send their children to school or invest in other businesses. Development of low-cost versions of western agricultural technology and of low-cost delivery systems are both vital to bringing food security to the majority of the world’s poor.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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