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.

SY DJIBRIL/Panapress/MAXPPP/Newscom/File
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.

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.

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.

Our product is much simpler to sell and install than traditional drip irrigation and hence can be sold through many more channels. Today we primarily distribute through agriproducts companies in India and through governments in China. In three to five years, we expect to distribute our products in several additional countries.

We provide training to the employees of our distribution partners dedicated to our account on how to install our drip irrigation system, and they go on and train the farmers on how to install our system post sale.

We also work with our partners to develop training and marketing materials.

How can drip irrigation have an impact on farming, especially small plot farmers?

In order to feed the world in the next 40 years, global food output will need to climb 70 percent. The agriculture sector currently uses 70 percent of the world’s fresh water resources and 80 percent of the world’s farmland.

The challenge of meeting future human agricultural needs is not just about increasing yield: It’s about increasing yield while decreasing the amount of water agriculture demands. The agriculture sector in developing countries is especially water inefficient using 81 percent of their total freshwater resources, much of which is wasted through inefficient irrigation techniques.

Many smallholder farmers currently work to feed their families with the food they produce, but have little or nothing left over to sell in the marketplace. The installation of a Driptech system allows these farmers to grow crops year-round while conserving water, labor, and time.

Drip irrigation increases crop yields by 20 to 90 percent. Farmers are able to produce enough vegetables to meet their own families’ nutritional needs, grow additional crops to sell in local markets, and grow high-value crops during the dry season. Crops grown using Driptech’s product have brought some farmers 50 to 150 percent higher market prices. The cost of a system is usually repaid within six months through yield increase and water and labor savings.

In addition, Driptech’s decentralized manufacturing model will deploy production facilities directly to where the product is sold, adding jobs to rural economies while allowing for local customization of the systems and additional cost reductions.

Could Driptech technology be applied in Somalia?
In the case of Somalia, the farmers must rely on the rain since there is little water infrastructure help from the government. In this case, Driptech's system would help these small-plot farmers use their meager water supplies more efficiently so that they could have enough water to irrigate their land throughout the dry season.

Our system could also help these farmers increase their crop yields and quality of their crop, providing them and their families with more nutritious calories. Basically, along with appropriate farming techniques, a Driptech system would help dampen the effects of drought by helping people avoid not being able to feed themselves.

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