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The challenge

Improving water use efficiency to boost yields

Farms less than two hectares in size play a crucial role in global food security. Agriculturally, many regions of Asia and Sub‐Saharan Africa can be defined by their poor access to water to grow crops, which makes efficient use of precious irrigated water a significant priority for enabling food security.

Without economic access to advanced soil water probes, farmers in these regions are prone to over‐watering – often incorrectly seen as a way of ensuring a successful crop. This reduces the overall amount of water available for other farmers, while also counterproductively reducing the yield of the crop. This occurs by washing away nutrients in the soil, saturating the plant's root system and often resulting in root diseases such as rot and mould. Furthermore, manually irrigating by hand in many of these countries is also time consuming.

The development of an inexpensive, easy‐to‐use and effective system to monitor soil water levels is a vital step towards increasing crop yields to feed the world's growing population, while lifting farmers from many of the world's poorest regions out of poverty.

We have developed an accessible system for the world's most vulnerable farmers that notifies them of their crop's soil water levels, and helps them make decisions that significantly boost their crop yields.

Our response

Making water sensors accessible

We have developed the Chameleon soil water sensor system, in a project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). The Chameleon soil water system has been designed to be inexpensively manufactured, simple to install, and easy to understand.

The system visually shows farmers whether there is too much soil moisture (blue light – no irrigation required for some time), too little soil moisture (red light – irrigation required), or an adequate level (green light - do not irrigate and monitor the situation) at different soil depths.

An addition suite of tools are also available to measure salt and nitrate levels. Combined, the Chameleon soil water sensor system helps farmers make informed management decisions.

The results

Increased farm productivity and crops

As a result of our research, hundreds of the world's most vulnerable smallholder farmers are already seeing a number of benefits for their farming operations. Chameleon sensors are currently servicing more than 1,000 crops across 13 countries in four continents, with the number of users expected to increase 10‐fold within two years.

Through improved water use efficiency and the reduction of diseases previously promoted by over‐watering, farmers have seen up to 30 per cent increases in their crop yields, as well as reductions in water usage by as much as 30 per cent.

As part of this project we have also established the Virtual Irrigation Academy, enabling farmers to access communal knowledge, and better understand their farming practices.

Farms utilising Chameleon sensors have witnessed improved labour productivity, with labour previously used for watering duties diverted towards other beneficial tasks such as removing weeds that further compete with crops for soil moisture and nutrients. Farmers have also been able to reinvest their increased profits into on‐farm improvements such as wells – driving further economic development, and futureproofing their farms for the benefit of their communities.

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