First East Africa digital conference extols VIA innovations

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Delegates at the digital conference

Delegates at the just concluded First East Africa Digital Farmers Conference and Exhibition held from May 29-31, 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya, have extolled the meticulous use of water and nutrient smart technologies to promote efficient and cost effective irrigation in Malawi.

ASARECA was invited to present to over 400 delegates and exhibitors on digital solutions that the Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) Project to Improve Water and Agricultural Productivity in Tanzania and Malawi is deploying.

About the digital conference

The conference attracted end-users of ICT innovations, service providers, disseminators, regulators, policy formulators, and developers of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the agricultural sector. During theconference under the theme;Enabling Agribusiness through ICT innovations, ICT innovators explained their creations; farmers provided feedback on what really works for them; and agricultural research and extension service providing institutions and development partners sought information to tailor support to transform agriculture. The conference was also the first step in creating a catalogue of existing digital innovations and matching them to farmers' needs to catalyze the role of ICTs in agricultural Research for Development.

ASARECA showcases VIA

ASARECA informed the Conference that theVIA project has 4 key objectives, which include: Refining and deploying farmer-friendly monitoring tools that measure amount of moisture, nutrients and salts in the soils; developing a “Virtual Irrigation Academy”(VIA) through on-line visualization of data from the monitoring tools linked to a virtual discussion space with skilled facilitators; determining how the VIA promotes social and institutional learning that improves irrigated farm productivity; and developing partnerships for sustainable out scaling of VIA and monitoring tools.

Addressing the delegates, ASARECA project leader for VIA, Moses Odeke gave a detailed description the tools deployed under the VIA project. The tools include: Moisture monitoring tools, such as Sensor arrays, Wifi reader (which can be connected to a smart phone), popularly known as Chameleon; Salt monitoring tools such as Wetting Front Detector (popularly known as Full stop), Nitrate strips and EC Meters. As of October 2017, the project had supplied about 4 wifi readers, installed 80 chameleon sensor arrays and 55 Wetting Front Detectors to farmers in Tanzania, while in Malawi, the project has deployed a total of 9 Chameleon Readers, 132 Chameleon Sensor Arrays and 120 Wetting Front Detectors to 132 farmers to learn efficient water use and nutrient management by doing.

How the VIA works

Mr. Odeke explained that the Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) combines new irrigation monitoring tools with an on-line communication and learning system. The tools capture data from the schemes on a daily basis and send it to the website. Country leaders use the data to study the situation to inform the process of mentoring extension workers and record the dialogue between farmers, extension workers and scientists for analysis of how learning occurs.

The VIA includes training resources such as videos on equipment installation and maintenance, interpretation of data, and documenting success stories which can be shared with other farmers in the project countries. The monitoring tools have been designed to fit the mental model of farmers and to give an output that is linked to action. For example, information on soil water suction, nitrate concentration and salinity levels are illustrated by colours that represent action thresholds and not by numbers with complicated units. This promotes inclusiveness in the use of the monitoring tools across the gender categories, especially the women and girls who often have low levels of literacy. The farmers were deliberately trained to read and interpret the tools to inform decisions on amount of water, salts and fertilizer needed for the good health of their crops.

The project was launched in 2015. It is a brainchild of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in partnership with the Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). In Africa, the project is being undertaken in Malawi and Tanzania. The Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) coordinates and provides technical backstopping in the two countries.

As a result of VIA innovations, farmers in Malawi and Tanzania attest that the number of irrigation intervals have reduced on average from four to five times a month to once or twice a month, signifying a 50% water saving.  Besides, the area under irrigation has increased by 83 percent in some of the schemes. Farmers are now able to save time for other activities such as grazing livestock, cultivating other crops. The women spare time to operate local restaurants and all sorts of enterprises. This means expansion in income generating options. Besides, many youth who were previously averse to farming have been attracted to it by associated technology based solutions.

Conference reacts

Amazed at the precision and impacts of the VIA project, the delegates called for outscaling of VIA in other Eastern and Central African countries.

Article by Ben Moses Ilakut-ASARECA


Date Published: 
Tuesday, 19 June 2018