Australia’s Virtual Irrigation Academy wins COP 28 and World Economic Forum awards

December 14, 2023

Australia’s Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) was announced as the winner of the Inclusion Award under the Water Changemakers Innovation Awards 2023 held at COP 28 this week.

Image: Farmer in Malawi checks their fields soil water content using VIA’s Chameleon sensor. Photo courtesy of Conor Ashleigh

The Water Changemaker Innovation Awards is a global initiative that recognises high-level commitment and leadership for climate-resilient water investments. The Awards also showcase the most promising climate-resilient innovations with the greatest potential for scale, replication, and further investment to support a water-secure world.

In its second great achievement, VIA was recently selected as a winner of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Smarter Climate Farmers Challenge’.

This challenge called for solutions using climate-smart agriculture approaches to improve food production, promote better living standards, respond to climate change and lead to the efficient care of the planet’s resources within food ecosystems. Its focus areas include: knowledge, skills, and education; resource efficiency and sustainability; inclusive technology; and innovative financing.

VIA’s world first Chameleon sensor helps small-scale farmers who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change to reduce water use while increasing crop yields and food production.

By enabling effective water management, VIA has the potential to transform the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people in the poorest countries that are already stricken by climate change.  VIA is already having a significant impact on farmers in drought-afflicted countries such as Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.  Its application has limitless potential around the world as farming communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Revolutionising agriculture technology, farmers simply bury VIA’s soil water sensor in the ground.  Attached to a light, it shows blue when the plants have plenty of water, green when things are ok and red when they need a drink….taking guess work and outdated water usage practices out of the equation, maintaining soil nutrients and increasing yields.

Originally established by CSIRO and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), VIA is now a stand-alone not-for-profit, seeking and working with partners around the world to manufacture and distribute this transformative technology.

The Virtual Irrigation Academy (or VIA) – created by CSIRO in 2015 and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research – develops technology specifically for the needs of low-income irrigation farmers.

Over the last 8 years, we have tested a big idea: what if we gave these farmers simple information about whether their crops were thirsty or not. We developed a soil water sensor – buried in the ground and attached to a light – that shows blue when the plants have plenty of water, green when things are ok and red when they need a drink.

We started in Tanzania and the results were extraordinary. Then on to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Ethiopia and into Asia – with much the same result. Farmers were hungry for this kind of information and quickly changed their irrigation practices.  A large majority of farmers substantially increased their yields.

But this was not the most surprising part. Almost all farmers who grew more food used less water to do so. Giving plants more water than they need leaches nutrients out of the soil, wastes energy for pumping and causes environmental problems such as waterlogging and salinity.

Soil water sensors like ours cost tens or even hundreds of dollars each.  Ours can be bought for less than $12 and forty thousand are already in use across 20 countries. Within a few years the sensor will cost half of that, and perhaps half again before the end of the decade.    

Farmers need information about water in their soil and that is what the VIA provides.  Perceived scarcity over water fuels conflict and conflict undermines attempts to equitably govern and share water in the contested world of managing common pool resources.

In 2022 the VIA became a not-for-profit company. The next step is to expand our production capacity and establish strategic knowledge and distribution partnerships in several locations around the world. This is because sensors are not a silver bullet in themselves, and this is not just a tech-fix problem. Growing more food with less water is a people problem.  We are challenging deep-seated traditions around the way things have always been done.

Building local knowledge and in-country capacity is key for farmers and stakeholders to understand how the sensors work, how to troubleshoot and carry our repairs and maintenance. And our quality assurance processes are fundamental in providing confidence around what makes for a low-cost but accurate sensor.

Soil sensors and data systems developed by the Virtual Irrigation Academy are applicable to 150 million of the poorest farming households in the world. It’s the first time in history these farmers have had access to this type of technology.

Irrigation is going to be a major part of adapting to climate change and most of this is going to have to be on small farms in low-income countries. Our technology is designed for these farmers and has been shown to work.  All we need now is the partners to scale.

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