Highlighting innovation in sustainable irrigation

With pressure on water resources an increasingly serious global challenge, initiatives to reduce water loss in agricultural irrigation are key in working towards addressing water scarcity.


The Innovate Irrigation Challenge was launched this year, by AB Sugar in partnership with the IfM’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability (CIS) and WaterAid, as a global competition seeking to stimulate innovations in irrigation that can have a positive impact on the future of sustainable agriculture.


The Challenge provided an opportunity for innovators from around the world to submit their ideas, during a 48-hour period on 19-20th June 2019, addressing the question: "How do you stop irrigation water losses (evaporation/leaks etc) in agriculture?".


We are delighted to share the news that the winners of the challenge are two graduate civil engineers from Uganda – Samuel Mukisa and Yvonne Nalinnya. Both studied Civil Engineering at Makerere University and have a keen interest in irrigation in agriculture. The pair was unanimously chosen by the panel of expert judges, including CIS’s Professor Steve Evans and Ian Bamford.


Their idea focuses on a smart irrigation system that will provide real-time data to estate managers and small holder farmers to make informed decisions on water usage and irrigation scheduling. The winners were awarded with £10,000 for the accolade. As a first step, the idea will be translated into a feasibility study to consider its potential impact.


Professor Steve Evans, Director of Research in CIS, said:

“Reducing water loss from irrigation in agriculture is no mean feat and the existing tools that farmers have at their disposal are unlikely to be sufficient. That means we need new ideas from bright and passionate people to help us solve this problem. We are delighted to be part of this initiative and are pleased to see such exciting innovations put forward.”


On announcing the winning idea, Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy from AB Sugar said:

“We are delighted with the winning idea and the potential to introduce the concept following the results of the feasibility study. We are continually taking steps to conserve water in line with our 2030 sustainability commitments and are always looking at ways to work with those within our supply chain to do so. The winning idea provides us with the opportunity to work together with our growers to put this into practice.”


The judges panel represented a diverse range of experience across industry sectors and geographies; alongside the IfM other organisations on the panel included AB Sugar, WaterAid, the University of East Anglia, SustMeme and Illovo Sugar Africa. The judges came together to review all the entries against a set criterion of relevance, feasibility, scalability, impact and measurability. 


The winning idea

Samuel and Yvonne’s idea focused on developing a smart irrigation system that would account for water used in irrigation, detect water losses in the system, plan irrigation schedules, monitor growth of crops and determine the irrigation water requirement of the crop during different growth stages. It could be connected into current processes, managed from afar and integrated with new technologies available in remote locations; allowing estate managers and small holder farmers to understand, analyse and act on the information provided through the acquired data.


What stood out to the judges during the review stage was that the idea also prioritised the need for all parties to continually adapt behaviour around water usage given its status as a depleting resource across the globe, and to contribute action towards the fight against climate change. All data captured within the system would be available in real-time; while training needed for farmers and estate staff to build up capability of using such systems was also considered. Push notifications to users would enable action to take place as and when needed whilst ongoing water audits would monitor action taken against output provided.


Ian Bamford, CIS’s Commercial Director, commented:

“The need to encourage recurrent behaviour change from all those involved from the offset stood out; it’s about continuing to build trust with users. Overtime this will ensure a better chance of success when introducing other new technologies to meet the changing needs of the climate in less-developed countries or rural locations.”


Find out more about work by IfM’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability, including our partnerships with industry: www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/research/industrial-sustainability/

Date published

7 November 2019

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