Irrigation drones for Zimbabwe’s Lowveld
Irrigation drones might just be the answer to the almost perennially erratic rainfall patterns experienced by sugarcane farmers in Zimbabwe’s lowveld.
Located to the South West of the country and comprising areas like Chiredzi, Triangle, Mkwasine and Checheche in Masvingo and Manicaland Provinces, Zimbabwe’s lowveld falls in the Natural region IV and V; which experience serious droughts almost every six years. The government recently built a dam to ease water shortages in that part of the country, but the water needs to be used carefully; hence farmers have to find ways to conserve it.
Traditional irrigation methods would normally require implements like sprinklers and pipes, which would work in the Mashonaland provinces to the North of the country, where rainfall is more reliable.
“Here, annual costs on traditional irrigation would rise to $40,000 and 100,000 litres of water to irrigate one acre of sugarcane,” says 25-year old farmer, Nathan Mazvazva. “With drone irrigation, we have cut costs to $24,000.”
Mazvazva owns a 500-acre farm, where he grows various crops ranging from sugarcane, beans to pepper. Precision agriculture technology – specifically drones – have made his professional life less costly.
“Each drone can carry 15 litres of water and pesticides. Efficient spraying can cover 37 acres in 30 minutes, thanks to accurate distribution of the liquid,” says Mazvazva. “With traditional irrigation, most water goes into the top soil, seeping down to the underlying bedrock. Drones have saved me 60 percent in irrigation costs.”
Drone irrigation causes less water spillage, and targeted crop watering is especially helpful when seasonal droughts reduce water sources. And with climate change making the drought seasons more and more frequent in Southern Africa, precision agriculture technology could not have come at a more opportune time.
According to the World Food Program (WFP), climate change will be one of the reasons why 45 million people in Southern Africa will face food shortages. 7,7 million of them will be in Zimbabwe, while other hard-hit countries include Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi.
“Boreholes were expensive and unreliable…ordering water was expensive,” says Mazvazva. “With less rain, draining our reservoir was not a feasible option, so we had to improvise.”
Mazvazva first heard about drone irrigation technology late last year, from a local tech startup called Iris Water. Soon after, he purchased two drones for him farms.
Nyasha Hambira, Iris Water’s founder and CEO says his company’s agricultural drone costs $4,000, including spares, warranty, batteries and support software. The company also produces a drone with 10-liter capacity for $3,500.
Beyond the financials, a key challenge of using drones in Zimbabwe is strict regulations due to security concerns. The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe’s (CAAZ) regulations for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) mat prove hard to negotiate for farmers in the short term, as they have to register their drones, obtain permits and licences before they can enjoy the convenience of their new toys.
While the use of drones is limited by security and privacy concerns from regional governments, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and International Telecommunication Union are promoting them, especially amid climate change. In 2018, the two produced reports on crop production, which confirmed drones as ideal for precision agriculture.
“In supporting precision farming, drones can do soil health scans, monitor crop health, assist in planning irrigation schedules, apply fertilizers, estimate yield data and provide valuable data for weather analysis,” reads a section of the report. “Data collected through drones, combined with other data sources and analytic solutions, provide actionable information.”
Farmers are facing increasing challenges in their efforts to fight world hunger. The FAO and ITU conclude that drones are a helpful alternative solution for farmers. the challenge is for governments to recognise this and do what they can to support technology in agriculture.