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How Affordable Irrigation Technology Helps FarmersSupPlant, an Israeli firm that installs sophisticated irrigation systems for villages facing water scarcity and low yields, wants to improve its system and spread its work to even more people in need. As such, the organization is pioneering affordable irrigation technology by cutting down on the amount of infrastructure its systems need to function.

The Old Ways

Reliable data is crucial to getting the most out of an irrigation system. While practical experience can help some of the world’s most impoverished farmers improve their yields, there is considerable room to improve from the uncertainty of relying on intuition. SupPlant was built on recognizing the potential of making these improvements with the accuracy that only sophisticated data retrieval equipment can provide.

Efforts to improve agricultural income with innovative new techniques have been successful under the startup model of installing small sensors to relay data like climate conditions or plant health. SupPlant’s customers are mainly from farms in South Africa and Venezuela, with additional demand from Australia and Mexico.

Farmers Review Africa reports a successful curve on implementing this system, with a 1,200% increase in demand for SupPlant’s solutions in 2020. However, when it comes to accessing the 450 million farmers that subsist on two hectares or less of productive soil, SupPlant encountered a problem.

Financial Barriers

Until recently, SupPlant has struggled with the cost of serving rural communities. Installing hardware is very expensive for farmers, so wealth is necessary to benefit from this system. Low-income farmers with small parcels of land have “no ability to afford knowledge and technology that is super expensive and very high-end,” says SupPlant CEO Ori Ben Ner in an interview with The Media Line.

If the data from these physical sensors is a fundamental aspect of SupPlant’s agricultural assistance, then providing affordable irrigation technology must preserve this data while eliminating the very hardware that provides it. After $19 million in fundraising from an array of venture capitalists, SupPlant is providing exactly that.

How Does it Work?

Rolling out affordable irrigation technology is a balancing act that requires finding ways to increase efficiency without compromising the benefits of full implementation. The new system adapts its older iteration as the foundation for its improvements. The steps to accomplishing this are as follows:

  1. Cloud computing forms the backbone of this endeavor. Thousands of small farms can grow the same crops under similar conditions. Thus, the data gathered from sensors in a single farm can benefit other farmers after it is uploaded to an easily accessible database.
  2. Collecting this data is only part of the process. Vast amounts of data have limited utility if farmers lack the training to interpret it well enough to make informed decisions. SupPlant employs algorithms based on artificial intelligence to read a constantly updating sensor feed to provide legible recommendations on how to manage irrigation for specific crops and environments.
  3. Once the data is ready, it is up to farmers to do what the algorithm suggests. Many of these directives may be as simple as adjusting water levels based on how much one of the 32 crops in the database requires to stay healthy and resilient. Climatic data may also factor in, reducing water use if there is a high probability of rain.

The net result is not entirely accurate because the data cannot reasonably account for minor variations between different farms. Broad utility at an affordable price nonetheless offsets these considerations in light of what affordable irrigation technology can still accomplish.

Results on the Ground

Even though prohibitive cost leaves only 2% of the world’s farmers able to install sensors on their land, these sensors accumulate enough data to meet the needs of affordable irrigation technology for the other 98%. “We increase yields starting at day one by 20-30% while saving 30-40% water use,” says Ben Ner on the impact of widespread implementation.

Earlier cases of SupPlant’s success in 2020 provide a definitive outline for the potential of making its agricultural assistance available to low-income brackets. South African farmers who could afford these services leveraged superior knowledge to squeeze an extra 41% out of their lemon harvest, while Mexican farmers transformed a 15% reduction in water usage to a 20% increase in their mango yield.

What is Next for SupPlant?

With affordable irrigation technology now a reality through sensorless data, SupPlant aims to breach the poverty line that stopped so many farmers from reaping its benefits. Short-term goals for 2021 deal with expanding services to Kenya, and the company expects 500,000 new farmers by September 2021. More ambitious goals for 2022 anticipate two million new users of sensorless irrigation, counting many African countries and India as the next beneficiaries.

– Samuel Katz
Photo: Flickr