Despite Africa being home to around 60% of the world’s uncultivated, arable land, its farmers are still struggling to feed themselves, meaning poverty and malnutrition remains common place. One in four people are starving, compared to one in eight globally. With 80% of the poor in Africa being small-scale farmers, poor agricultural opportunities and inconsistent rainfall, can mean poverty for much of the year. With the population of the continent expected to reach 2 billion by 2050, sustainable solutions are critical. 

Only 4% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, which means the vast majority of farmers depend on the unreliable rains to grow their crops. Over-saturated markets, with farmers all planting and harvesting at the same times, mean low prices when it comes to the time to sell crops and huge amounts of food waste. Around 65% of the food grown in rainy season spoils before it is eaten or sold yet a few months later when the rains dry up, farmers are subsequently left with no food and no income.

With African farmers’ over reliance on rain-fed farming, using traditional indicators such as bird migrations or rising insect populations to plant in advance of the coming rains, Kenyan based KickStart International has conceptualised affordable, effective, self-powered irrigation pumps, to empower poor farmers, especially women (60-70% of the agricultural workforce), increasing yields, incomes, and providing a path out of poverty. The company says that over 40 million farmers across Africa who currently rely primarily on rainfall have the potential to access available ground water through hand-dug wells, ponds, rivers or streams, but what they need, is effective and affordable irrigation systems. 

The smaller of two models, which weighs just 4.5kgs and sits on a farmer’s hip (MoneyMaker Hip Pump - $70), irrigates up to 1.25 acres of land per day, sprays 10 gallons a minute and pulls water from depths of up to 23 feet. 

The light model is designed with women in mind, operating like a bicycle pump with a single cylinder attached to a valve box that contains an inlet/outlet valve and a single piston attached to a handle that can be pulled in and out of the cylinder. The upstroke pulls water through an intake hose and into the cylinder while the downstroke pushes water to the outlet hose onto the crops.

The main model, the MoneyMaker Max, which costs $170 and weights 16kg, works on the same technology, but irrigates up to two acres of land per day and sprays 16 gallons a minute. It contains two cylinders and two pistons placed above a valve box with inlet and outlet chambers. The pistons are driven by two levers, linked together by a rocker arm. When one lever is foot-depressed on the downstroke, the other lever is lifted in an upstroke. The upstroke pulls groundwater into the pump’s cylinder through the inlet valve; the downstroke pushes the water back out through the cylinder and into the outlet pipe/hose, which then feeds the crops.

KickStart’s founders, Dr. Martin Fisher and Nick Moon, who met in a development agency in Kenya, bring two backgrounds. Fisher, with a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford, suffered extreme poverty following his graduation, and realised it was a challenge for mankind. Moon was born in Mumbai to British parents and having grown up witnessing the challenges of the developing world, was on a mission from the age of 17, to use entrepreneurial skills to make change. The company is now working on finance solutions to support farmers and solutions including a low energy, submersible solar pump. 

In the US, several innovators are finding ways to manage irrigation which in time could provide solutions globally. Upstream, was launched by two engineers with a passion for conservation, Marshall Moutenot and Alden Keefe Sampson, using satellite imagery to provide more sustainable irrigation solutions, using machine learning to monitor and measure from space. By taking data from a variety of sources, the platform provides detailed insights on specific regions of land such as if it is irrigated and if so, what technology it is using. Due to its huge success and growing team, it has been invested in heavily, including acquisition by Natel Energy, a water and energy company that develops sustainable hydropower turbines, enabling the team to further develop products relating to conservation and clean energy.

Soil condition sensors have been developed in the US by a retired HP executive, Scott Anderson. His company Acclima’s mission is to increase productivity and efficiency in agriculture. With a Master's degree in electrical engineering and having grown up working on the family farm, he later became an avid gardener and orchard owner. First hand, he wanted to devise a practical way to precisely control the application of irrigation water and he understood the many advantages this ability would bring to farmers globally, in addition to conservation. 

Using the sensors which are accurately able to report the soil water content despite the salinity of the soil under normal growing conditions, the technology is hugely popular. They also accurately report soil electrical conductivity and temperature, in turn, facilitating more efficient application of fertiliser. Because salinity can interfere with measurements, this sensor allows farmers to get an accurate reading to reduce water and energy waste, pumping costs, and erosion, while increasing crop yields and nutrient uptake into the plants. After years of research and support from the USDA, the device is becoming affordable, meaning more inclusive farming solutions. 

Targeted irrigation is the future. Dynamax uses plants to measure moisture levels, aware that feeding the world’s population on diminishing water supplies, is a crucial issue of the day. From small flowers to large trees, the company uses sensors on a plant to read the water use and sap flow for a day, to fully understand the exact needs of any given plant. Data is uploaded to the cloud to allow comparison across species, meaning bespoke irrigation planning for plants and in turn, minimal water wastage and maximal yield potential.

Food and water security is an urgent issue, especially in the developing world. Climate change and poverty create a vicious cycle that only collaboration and innovation can even hope to reverse. It is vital that sustainable and nutritious food is accessible to all, while ensuring farmers have the right for self-sufficiency, with the least impact on the ailing environment. 

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