By Abraham Salomon, Founder, Agriworks Uganda
Abraham Salomon participated in the 2014 International Development Design Summit in Arusha, Tanzania and is an active member of the International Development Innovation Network.
There is a large gap in the market for irrigation technologies serving smallholder farmers. Between treadle pumps and large commercial systems, farmers are left without easy, affordable irrigation solutions.
Agriworks Uganda is a startup company, developing innovative technologies for smallholder farmers. The business conducts research & development (R&D) targeting this market, and develops low-cost sales models to reach them.
Our product line addresses a large gap in the market for irrigation products suitable for smallholders. Competing products for our customer segment do not meet the needs of our clients. These options can be classified into low-cost manual systems, and high-cost fixed systems. The low-cost manual systems are well known, as treadle pumps, bicycle powered pumps, and manually-filled drip bucket-kits. Although the capital cost of these is significantly lower than our offerings, they are in a much lower power class and cannot irrigate commercially viable acreages. These systems require extremely large amounts of labor to operate and are feasible only within a vary short distance to water. Because of these problems, many farmers have abandoned these systems, often in favor of small engine pumps. In the region, small engine pumps also have not been successful, as they are sold without a complete irrigation design.
Farmers often use a pump to operate a small sprinkler (usually poor quality) or hand water with a garden hose. Because buying a pump cannot solve the problem of effective water delivery, these systems are also highly fuel and labor inefficient. Competitors offering these products are generally small p
ower-tool sockists who have very minimal knowledge on irrigation and let their clients down with unmet promises. Finally, expensive fixed irrigation systemsare offered by a few specialty irrigation suppliers, but these are out of the reach of most smallholders. They serve the middle and upper income class of hobby farmers as well as large commercial farms. These companies have large overheads to gain consumer confidence of these customer segments and are not well suited to the smallholder market.
Our flagship product is the Agriworks Mobile Irrigation System (AMIS), which is a full irrigation system that can be carried by a common motorcycle.
This innovation is the cheapest irrigation technology on a per-acre basis that we know of. It is designed to allow more than one farmer to share the capital cost of the system, making irrigation much affordable for each user. It also has a number of other benefits: because it is mobile, all the equipment is securely stored at night and guarded against theft; it is easy to use, and needs only one operator in addition to the farmer; finally, it comes with a motorcycle that can also be used to take crops to market and for personal transport. We’ve been working on this technology for over 5 years, with the idea starting in a UC Davis’ D-Lab team. Since we built the initial prototype in Uganda, we’ve continued working with D-Lab to improve useability before commercial release. The product is now ready for scale out, and a release event is in the works.
During Fall 2014, two volunteers from our partners at the UC Davis D-Lab have joined us to fabricate and test the final design and release the Agriworks Mobile Irrigation System (AMIS). The goal of the trip was to build a prototype of the commercial model, test it with farmers, make changes based on their feedback, then build the commercial model for release.
The design consists of a frame which holds the pump, 100 meters of layflat hose, and a toolbox for the sprinkler head, booster pump, spare parts, and spanners. We tested the commercial model in four sites (Ngora, Mbale. Jinja, & Abim districts) among farmers having different levels of experience in irrigation. In Ngora, we tried the commercial model on a bajaj boxer, the motorcycle we’ve been trying to adapt the system to for the last year. We wanted to use this motorcycle because it is by far the most common motorcycle in Uganda, and is known for being long-lasting, durable, and easily repaired. For these reasons, we’ve tried all means to make it work for the AMIS, but during this trial, we decided it just does not have enough power to make the system work efficiently. The RPMs needed to make reach our sprinkler’s desired operating pressure causes too much strain on the 100cc engine.
In Mbale, we operated the system with a CG125, which performs very well. Although the drawbacks of this motorcycle are the higher fuel consumption during transport and fewer sales outlets for spares, we see this model performing far better during irrigation and transporting the heavy load of equipment on the road. We’ve settled on this model and will include it in the sales price of our final AMIS product. The test in Jinja was the first flawless run of the system we’ve ever done. Within 20 minutes, we’d gone to the stream, set up the entire system and began irrigation. The performance was excellent, and we irrigated ½ acre for the first time. Finally, in Abim, we had no additional problems with the system, and the farmers we tested with gave us good information on their price point to buy the system. Although it was not for sale, they told us if we had been willing to sell it at 6 million shillings (roughly $2,300), we would not have gone home with the AMIS.
General feedback was that all the farmers we tested with were awed by the system and found it easy to use, effective, and a major upgrade from their existing practice. However, the system price was high, and many farmers will have to access loans to get the system. Some farmers mentioned it was going to be possible for them to buy the system outright, especially in small groups of 2-5 people.
Based on the feedback, we’ve made some changes on the system before our final release. This includes making the sprinkler’s tripod more resistant to falling, changing size and the position of handles on the toolbox, reducing the number of straps for attaching to the motorcycle, and replacing all threaded fittings with camlocks. This should make the system more efficient and easy to use.
To offer lower cost alternatives to the AMIS, we’ve also developed a full product line of the AMIS plus three other mobile irrigation technologies. The four products are all based on the AMIS’s integrated water delivery system, the motorcycle mounted pump/pipe frame. Because of this design, they are fully modular, allowing a farmer to start with one system and add on the others or upgrade to more powerful versions over time. The first is a cut-down version of the AMIS, which has a stronger delivery pump and no booster. This will work well in flat areas, and can bes sold without a motorcycle. Second, we have designed a drip-system where every user must buy a ¼ acre drip-kit, but the multiple users can share a mobile water delivery system. This mobile delivery system is the same as what we use on the original AMIS, supplying water to the main-line of various farmers’ drip kits each day.
Finally, we have designed a moveable impact sprinkler set, which requires lower pressure to operate. This also uses the AMIS mobile delivery system, and the sprinkler-set can be carried easily by hand from one plot to another (within ~1 km). Because they are modular, a farmer starting with a drip kit can cheaply upgrade to a full AMIS, purchase 4 drip kits (for 1 acre), or combine sprinkler-sets with drip and rain guns in any way they prefer. Each of these will have it’s own price tag and site requirements, but based on these visits, I think there will be customers for all of them. Agriworks may need to include rainwater capture ponds as a product for upland smallholders to access the system.
We plan to finish the R&D on these products, and launch by the end of the year. In order to do this, we are in the process of establishing agreements with agents to market these products for us, and identifying finance organizations willing offer these products on an asset-lease basis. Based on our extensive work in R&D for our target clients (commercial smallholders), we think we can be the market leader in small-scale irrigation in Uganda, and eventually, East Africa.
For updates, visit our website and blog. Please contact the founder with any inquiries or interest at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.