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Water, Food, Tech: What’s Next?

This post was written by K. Unger Baillie and originally appeared in the November issue of Global Waters, a publication of the USAID Water Office.

Growing up in Nepal, Pratap Thapa and his family owned a farm on the slopes adjacent to the Lele River. But despite their proximity to the riverbed, they had difficulty providing water to nourish their rice, wheat, and potato crops. To move water from the river to their elevated field required expensive, polluting gasoline or diesel pumps.

“Nepal is a country of 6,000 rivers, but people have to struggle because of geography,” Mr. Thapa said. “There are many places where rivers are flowing but people can’t get water to their fields.”

When Mr. Thapa left home to pursue a master’s degree in the Netherlands, he founded the start-up company aQysta and brought together a team to research solutions to this problem. Their brainchild – a hydro-powered pump that channels the river’s energy to lift water to agricultural fields – is now being piloted with support from Securing Water For Food (SWFF), one of USAID’s Grand Challenges for Development (GCD).

A Grand Challenge

The GCDs are designed to foster innovation and take what might have remained brilliant but unrealized insights, and translate them into innovations that will reap tangible benefits for millions. “Through Grand Challenges, we pair the expertise and creativity of the world's brightest innovators with strategic thinking and partnerships to address critical development problems,” said Ku McMahan, Team Leader for SWFF.

Each challenge invites companies, NGOs, organizations, universities and other innovators around the world to submit ideas to tackle a range of development issues, and awards the most promising with funding and USAID support. Challenges tackle issues including the Ebola crisis, infant and maternal health, and illiteracy. SWFF is searching for and supporting innovations that will enable farmers to produce more food with less water or increase the availability of water for food production, processing, and distribution.

SWFF was launched at the 2013 World Water Week in Stockholm and is supported by USAID in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. More than 520 groups from more than 90 countries applied for the first round of funding, and in September, 17 award nominees were announced. Each will receive between $100,000 and $3 million in funding and support.

SWFF’s objectives fit into those of USAID’s Water and Development Strategy. The second of the Strategy’s two strategic objectives is to manage water in agriculture sustainably and more productively to enhance food security. With 70 percent of global freshwater resources used for agriculture, often in inefficient, unsustainable irrigation systems, and food needs expected to grow 70 percent by 2050, this goal is more important than ever.

The Strategy states that, “USAID’s resources are most effective by leveraging resources at the country level, and by using emerging science and technology to promote innovation.” The GCDs enable USAID to find and support the innovations with the most potential to improve the world for the long term.

“SWFF’s goal is to find new innovations that improve food security and lessen water use while being simultaneously economically, socially and environmentally sustainable,” said Dr. McMahan. “Rather than have a program in which we try to come up with the solutions ourselves, we call on the public from around the world to identify solutions and innovations.”

Sandbar Pumpkin Patches


The 17 SWFF award nominees are already transforming traditional farming practices around the world. One of them, Practical Action, is helping farmers in Bangladesh use untapped resources to grow pumpkins – a valuable cash crop – during the dry season.

Farmers in Bangladesh struggle to work around environmental conditions that shift with the seasons in increasingly extreme and unpredictable ways due to climate change. Many poor families live along riverbeds where their land is subject to flooding in the rainy season. During the dry season, these same families can lack water for their crops.

Practical Action is expanding on a decade’s worth of efforts to utilize a transient resource to boost farmers’ incomes and secure more comfortable livelihoods: sandy islands that emerge in rivers for just five months during the dry season.

They have helped farmers in the Jamuna and Padma river basins to plant pumpkins in these sandbars to reap extra income from land previously considered useless. The technique involves digging pits in the sand, adding fertilizer in the form of animal manure, building small, temporary reservoirs near the crops, and using pumps to deliver water to the fields.

Not only does the approach produce nutritious vegetables that have a long shelf life and high trade value, it also uses less groundwater than traditional agriculture in the area.

“This helps farmers sell their produce and cope during the flooding period,” said Sabrina Shahab, a fundraising specialist at Practical Action. “It is especially relevant for Bangladesh, which is suffering from climate change and needs efficient water and land management to ensure food security.”

Practical Action has already supported more than 16,000 pumpkin farmers in Bangladesh, cultivating nearly 2,000 hectares of sandbars to produce 52,000 tons of pumpkins worth $4 million. Nearly 50 percent of active participants are women. With the SWFF award, the organization plans to test two business models. They also see opportunities to expand elsewhere in Asia where riverbed farming is conducted, including in Nepal, India and Vietnam.

Beneficiaries of the pilot tests are very satisfied. One of them, Abdul Rahmin, applied revenues from sandbar farming – more than $400 per crop cycle – to expand the scale of his pit farming operation and invest in irrigation. He was also able to purchase clothing, food, housing improvements, and a sheep and cow for his family.

“We never thought such farming can be done in sandy land where there was nothing except sand,” said one farmer.

Drones For Agriculture

Other SWFF award nominees are employing technology to help farmers tackle age-old problems. One of these nominees, FutureWater, is harnessing a decidedly 21st century technology to do so: drones.

Their innovation, known as Flying Sensors or the Third Eye, uses unmanned aerial vehicles to fly over fields and collect spatial information using both visible and near-infrared light. The resulting maps provide real-time information that allows farmers to effectively identify their crops’ needs, diagnose any issues before they become problematic, and optimize their use of key resources.

“We all know smallholder farmers have limited resources, including seeds, fertilizer, and water,” said Peter Droogers, FutureWater’s scientific director. “They normally apply these resources based on a visual inspection of their crops. However, if they look at the crop and see some stress, it might already be too late to save the harvest.”

The Third Eye project is unrolling in Mozambique, where fields of maize, cassava, and sorghum currently yield harvests much lower than the same crops grown elsewhere in the world. The data gleaned from the Flying Sensors will help increase yields by a projected 10 percent. Data from the near-infrared maps detect problems with crops up to two weeks before the naked eye, since sick plants reflect near-infrared light differently than healthy plants.

“The resulting maps will indicate where and when on their plots to irrigate or apply fertilizer or even the appropriate time for harvest,” said Dr. Droogers.

FutureWater will be deploying networks of Flying Sensor operators, each of which can serve 400 farmers. With SWFF support, they aim to have 20 sensor operators reaching 8,000 smallholder farmers and two commercial farms within three years.

River-Powered Pumps

In Nepal, Mr. Thapa’s hydro-powered pumps are a new technology that will help farmers optimize scarce water resources. Through his research, Mr. Thapa found that his family is one of many facing the ironic circumstance of living next to water but struggling to water their crops. On visits to farms throughout Nepal and in Ecuador and Spain, he and his team at aQysta found that proximity to water does not mean ease of access for agriculture. The pumps are poised to help these farmers finally make use of this precious resource.

Unlike diesel pumps, which are costly to run and maintain and generate significant pollution, aQysta’s Barsha Pumps have no operating costs, require little maintenance, and are emission-free.

The pumps, which Mr. Thapa and his co-founders designed in a university entrepreneurship class, harness the energy of flowing rivers to generate power to pump irrigation water to elevated fields. They demonstrated the product in Nepal in June, and with SWFF funding, they are building and testing six new pumps in different parts of the country. Eventually, they hope to scale up to mass production and offer the technology to small-to-mid-size farmers in four countries: Nepal, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Spain.

Farmers who participated in early tests were enthusiastic.

“When people first saw the pump, a lot of them were asking in disbelief, ‘Does it work?’” said Mr. Thapa. “But once it was working, without fuel electricity, they were really excited.”

K. Unger Baillie