Collaborating for irrigation access solutions: Where policy and engineering meet

As food demand rises due to growing populations with changing consumption patterns in Africa and around the globe, increased agricultural output is crucial. Since most agriculture across the African continent is currently rain-fed, increased availability of irrigation — especially water- and energy-efficient systems like drip irrigation — can help. Two research teams at MIT have been invested in this challenge, exploring solutions in Senegal from different disciplinary standpoints. But it was not until this fall, when the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) facilitated a connection between the two teams, that they learned of their overlapping interests and how each group’s research could support the other.

At MIT, J-WAFS is a strong proponent of convergence research practices to help drive solutions to the Earth’s pressing water and food systems challenges. Convergence research is driven by specific complex problems that involve deep integration across disciplines. J-WAFS funds MIT research across all five schools and emphasizes collaboration through their grants and other research support across the Institute. J-WAFS was uniquely positioned to know about these two research efforts — one based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) — that were both conducting fieldwork on irrigation in Senegal. Upon realizing that each project was unaware of the other’s efforts, J-WAFS was able to engineer a research exchange in order to support the success of two distinct projects on irrigation technology and access in Africa. 

Researchers in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab at MIT, led by Amos Winter, the Ratan N. Tata Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are using an engineering and design approach. The goal is to design efficient drip-irrigation technologies to be used in sub-Saharan Africa. However, transitioning smallholder farms from rain-fed irrigation to drip irrigation is a complicated process; previous attempts have not been widely effective. 

A J-WAFS seed grant has been supporting a different research team, led by Stephen Graves, Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science at the Sloan School of Management, and Bishwapriya Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning in DUSP, to address this problem from another angle. Focusing on Senegal, the research team has been investigating irrigation technology use, as well as barriers, from a supply chain and policy perspective. They have been talking to farmers and irrigation equipment suppliers for almost two years and are now analyzing the data in order to share it with policymakers and with stakeholders in Senegal across the irrigation technology supply chain.

When the GEAR Lab began working with J-WAFS last summer on funding a research proposal that focused on developing irrigation technology for that market, J-WAFS realized that the DUSP team had quite a bit of highly relevant knowledge to share, and that both groups could benefit by engaging with the other. J-WAFS Executive Director Renee Robins arranged a virtual introduction and subsequently hosted a meeting that brought the student researchers together. These efforts have sparked a collaboration between the two teams. “The seed funding awarded to our team by J-WAFS allowed us to cultivate strong connections in both Senegal and at MIT,” says Bish Sanyal, co-leader of the DUSP project. “Collaborating with the GEAR Lab was a wonderful opportunity to share the knowledge that our Senegalese partners have shared with us over the past two years.”

The GEAR Lab’s research proposal was to the international water technology company Xylem, a corporate partner through J-WAFS’ Research Affiliate program. They proposed a sponsored research collaboration that focuses on expanding low-cost pumping solutions for drip irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa, an interest that was sparked when Xylem participants heard Winter speak at a water and food conference co-sponsored by J-WAFS and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program. As part of Xylem’s mission to solve water issues, the company focuses on leveraging technology and innovation to address major challenges such as water affordability, water scarcity, and infrastructure resilience.

Irrigation technology design is a central focus of the GEAR Lab, which has been working since 2012 on enhancing drip-irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in India to increase their water availability, cost savings, and energy efficiency. Although drip irrigation has been used by smallholder farmers in India for decades, this is not the case in Africa. In Indian markets, the currently available equipment is not as sustainable as it could be. It is expensive due to the high water consumption and fuel needs inherent in the design. This is the challenge the GEAR Lab seeks to address. The lab has developed designs that decrease the energy consumed by pumping and moving water, and improved the dripper efficiency. The resulting systems save power and water and are less expensive. 

Beyond the technology development, the team is interested in designing systems that are effective in sub-Saharan Africa, where the challenges are different. “Drip irrigation has been tried in sub-Saharan Africa a number of times and hasn’t been widely successful,” says Georgia Van de Zande, a PhD student in the GEAR Lab. The technology is not widely available or in use because the initial capital costs for implementing drip irrigation are high, farmers require training in how to use the system, and maintenance is difficult if spare parts are not available or repair services do not exist. “If you’re going from rain-fed irrigation to something like drip irrigation, you’re jumping from zero to a hundred,” Van de Zande says, describing the transition the farmers face.

Winter was enthusiastic about bringing the advanced designs they had developed for the Indian context to Africa, but they knew that understanding consumer behavior in the various markets that exist within Africa was critical for user-adoption and retention. “Xylem was interested in how we could develop a drip-irrigation solution that could meet the technical requirements — like flow rate and the pressure head — while also meeting the socioeconomic user requirements that go with it,” Van de Zande says. In order to realize a solution that will be sustainable and scalable, Xylem also encouraged the MIT teams to examine the irrigation markets and distribution channels in sub-Saharan Africa and propose the comprehensive drip-irrigation system and commercial model that will be transformative within the context.

While GEAR Lab researchers had already explored this question with farmers in other parts of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zambia, they did not have data to draw on for countries like Senegal. “That’s where J-WAFS came in and introduced us to Bish and Stephen’s team. They helped shed some light on what the situation is like in Senegal,” says Van de Zande.

That DUSP seed grant project, funded by J-WAFS in 2017, focuses on agricultural extension services in Senegal, and why current services do not reach small farmers. “The challenge we are trying to address is the fact that irrigation is not as widely used as it could be in Senegal. People think of irrigation as this risk-solving activity because irrigation is the technical response to the fact that rainfall varies, but it brings its own set of risks,” Mark Brennan, a DUSP PhD candidate who is working on the project, explains. “Firms have to stock expensive technologies and they have few ways to control the quality of the products they are sourcing and then selling.”

The team’s approach is to learn more about the challenges on the supply side in order to inform policy change and other related supply chain interventions that could encourage greater use of irrigation throughout the country.  In order to do so, Brennan and fellow DUSP PhD candidate Jonars Spielberg traveled throughout Senegal, conducting numerous interviews with farmers and firms in the towns they visited. A central question emerged: Are repair services accessible? 

The question of service and repair represented an important context for the GEAR Lab’s proposed work in Senegal. This is what prompted J-WAFS Executive Director Renee Robins to facilitate an introduction between the two research teams. During their first meeting, Brennan and other researchers on the Senegal project gave a presentation to Amos Winter and the GEAR Lab about their initial findings. Up until that point, the GEAR Lab had seen irrigation firms — often with international financing — that sold irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa and also provided repairs. Brennan's team contrasted this supply-chain model with the Senegalese model, in which distribution and repairs are done by different sets of Senegalese firms. Most of the firms have just two people working there. “Equipment flows into rural communities from shops mainly based in the capital,” Brennan explains. “When the technology breaks, it is repaired by local shops.”

Understanding the supply side of the irrigation in Senegal was a crucial step for the GEAR Lab to finalize its proposal for Xylem. Because the project is centered on user accessibility as a way to successfully support farmers’ transitions away from rain-fed irrigation, gaining a greater understanding from the Graves/Sanyal team of the different distribution and maintenance channels was critically helpful. “We want to figure out where GEAR Lab should focus and where it makes sense to have this kind of technology,” Van de Zande explains.

Before the initial introduction in September, the two teams were not aware of each other’s research. Though their research questions are different, as are their disciplinary approaches, both sides the benefited from collaborating and discussing the challenge together. The GEAR Lab’s approach of improving the performance of the mechanical system is a “different way to think about the problem of irrigation,” Brennan says. “It makes you more aware of the technical side of the problem.” As for Van de Zande, “any irrigation solutions are going to have a technical side, a social side, a policy side,” and she clearly appreciated getting a deeper understanding from DUSP of the social and policy issues that were central to the GEAR Lab proposal. “All of these things have to work together to lead to a positive situation for the end user.” As each group moves forward with its research, there have been discussions about collaborating again in Senegal next February, a testament to the benefits both teams have gained from this experience. 

While MIT’s culture does support working across disciplinary boundaries to find solutions, it can be difficult for researchers to know whom to reach out to outside their network. This is where J-WAFS’ multi-disciplinary network is essential. Amos Winter, who leads the GEAR Lab, commented, “I didn’t know there were others at MIT working on irrigation from a policy perspective before this. Being a part of J-WAFS’ network gave my team the chance to engage in a cross-disciplinary dialogue that proved to help the success of our proposal to Xylem.” Winter adds, “The discussion that has ensued has clearly enriched both research teams.” Through interdisciplinary networks such as J-WAFS, impactful and comprehensive solutions that stem from convergence research can be crafted that address all sides of complex issues.