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Change Agent

Cheap drip irrigation could transform small farms

Peter Frykman founded Driptech to provide low-cost drip-irrigation systems to small farmers, hiking their crop yields by 20 to 90 percent.

By Vallabh RaoDowser.org / October 20, 2011

Cabbage plants grow in a field where a drip-irrigation system is installed near San Domingo, Cape Verde. Drip irrigation makes maximum use of available water supplies. Making it affordable to small farmers in developing countries presents a challenge.

SY DJIBRIL/Panapress/MAXPPP/Newscom/File

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Six hundred million subsistence farmers lack irrigation water, leaving them locked in poverty. A full third of the world’s population suffers from water scarcity. Without access to affordable water-efficient irrigation, small-plot farmers are unable to grow crops during much of the year. And without marketable produce, already meager incomes decline, and farmers can become unable to even meet the nutritional needs of their own families.

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In the spring of 2008, Peter Frykman visited farmers in Ethiopia as part of a course during his PhD studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Frykman arrived in the middle of the worst drought Ethiopia had experienced in 20 years.

The drip-irrigation products that were locally available were too expensive for most farmers and seldom worked properly. Frykman returned to Stanford and invented a new manufacturing technology that makes clean, consistent holes in super-low-cost plastic tubing.

After successfully validating the system with farmers in India, Frykman left his PhD program in 2009 to focus on growing Driptech – a privately held, for-profit social enterprise that designs and manufactures low-cost drip-irrigation systems for small-plot farmers in the developing world.

During 2009, Driptech sold 200 units to municipal government officials in Lingqiu, China, for local farmers. Driptech has also raised seed funding from two European social investment funds, including LGT Venture Philanthropy, and a variety of successful entrepreneurs.

Dowser recently caught up with Frykman to learn more about Driptech's technology.

Dowser: What is your geographic focus?
Frykman: We are targeting farmers in India and China first, based on the large number of farmers, the high usage of agricultural water, the low penetration of drip irrigation, and the prevalence of viable distribution channels. There are over 500 million farms of five acres or less around the world, and the majority of them are in India and China.

In India, there are 119 million farming households with plots of land of five acres or less, or 89 percent of all farms in India. Irrigated land represents 34 percent of arable land and permanent crops in India. Drip irrigation penetration in India is only 2 percent of arable land and is concentrated with larger commercial farms. We are initially focusing on farmers who have access to some source of water and are currently irrigating their crops without drip irrigation.

In China, there are about 193 million farms of five acres or less, which account for 95 percent of farms there. About 37 percent of arable land and permanent crops are irrigated there. As of 2007, only 0.4 percent of farmland in China was drip irrigated.

How does your distribution model work?
Driptech focuses on the design and manufacturing of drip-irrigation systems and works with local partners from companies, nonprofits, and governments that currently work with small farmers. Examples include companies that sell fertilizer, seeds, or farm equipment; companies that purchase crops from small farmers; nonprofits doing agricultural extension work; and agricultural and water bureaus in state and local governments.

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