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Improving irrigation for smallholder farmers in Mozambique


In Mozambique, more than 3 million smallholder farmers provide 95% of agricultural production, yet yields remain low. Despite contributing very little to global warming, Mozambican farmers are faced with climate change challenges because the country is one of the most vulnerable to climatic impacts in Africa. In recent years, droughts, floods and cyclones have been occurring with greater frequency and intensity. This extreme weather results in substantial crop losses that increase food scarcity and insecurity for many households.

Improving agricultural productivity and enhancing resilience to climate variability is critical for Mozambique’s smallholder farmers. Many farmers irrigate their crops to be able to grow during the dry season. Although the Mozambican government has made significant investments to help farmers weather the climate crisis and boost production, many of these smallholder irrigation schemes are falling into disrepair and farmers lack the knowledge and resources to fix them.

Another issue is that farmers are unable to tell when their crops need to be irrigated. Typically, when they see the soil surface looking dry, they irrigate — often on a daily basis. But such frequent irrigation leads to excessive water use and high fuel pump costs. To help farmers recognize when and how much to irrigate, the farmer-led smallholder irrigation in Mozambique (FASIMO) project introduced the innovative colour-based digital tool “the Chameleon”. Designed to measure soil moisture levels, the tool is being trialed in eight government-funded and farmer-led irrigation schemes in Mozambique’s Gaza and Manica provinces.

This tool, called “the Chameleon” is transforming the way that farmers water their crops.
Busani Bafana
This tool, called “the Chameleon”, is transforming the way that farmers water their crops.

Increased yields at half the cost

Using a system of coloured lights, the Chameleon is helping smallholder farmers in Mozambique to determine when and how much to irrigate their fields. The sensory tool detects soil moisture levels and is helping to significantly reduce water use and irrigation costs while helping farmers improve crop productivity.

“By using the system of coloured lights, the amount of irrigation water has been reduced by half, which means we produce the same amount of food with less resources,” said Emilio Magaia, principal investigator of FASIMO, which is co-funded by the Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund, a joint program of IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

“Can you imagine if we went to work only half the time but produced just as much — that would be really something. This is the difference that this innovative tool is making,” he said.

Since using the Chameleon, fuel costs for irrigation pumps have also gone down and farmers have more money and time to invest, with some now diversifying the crops that they grow.

Traditionally, beans are grown in the wet season, but farmers are beginning to cultivate them during the dry season, when most farmers are growing other commonly produced horticultural crops (tomatoes, cabbages, kale, lettuce). This means that farmers have been able to attract higher prices for the beans, enabling them to purchase new irrigation equipment and expand their cultivated area.

Similar to a road traffic light system, the Chameleon operates on three lights that are based on soil moisture levels. The colour of the light guides farmers’ decisions to irrigate. The Chameleon has three sensors, which are buried into the soil at different depths to monitor soil moisture. Blue indicates that the soil is wet, usually right after an irrigation or rainfall event. A green light indicates that there is sufficient moisture in the soil and no irrigation is needed. If the lights turn red, it is an alert that the soil is dry and it is time for the farmer to irrigate.

More than 300 smallholder farmers have been trained in the use of soil-moisture sensors and approximately 80 farmers have benefitted directly from the tools by having them installed in their fields. The farmers who have benefitted from the tool are eager to share their feedback and spread their knowledge, stated Magaia, especially since their crop yields have increased. Beneficiary farmers are now asking FASIMO to expand its efforts across the country.

The Chameleon tool has cut the amount of water used for irrigation by half.
Busani Bafana
The Chameleon tool has cut the amount of water used for irrigation by half.

The impacts of the Chameleon are striking. “By using this simple tool and through changing the farmers’ behaviour just a little bit, we have dramatically reduced water usage by up to 50%, cut fuel costs by 40%, and significantly increased productivity with crop yield increases of 10%,” highlighted Magaia.

“One woman told me that this tool had changed her life because FASIMO had taught her how to irrigate and when to fertilize based on how much soil water was there,” Magaia said. While water-monitoring tools give women more decision-making power over irrigation and crop management, a reduction in irrigation has also helped reduce their workload by freeing up time that can be spent on other activities.

When asked to summarize FASIMO’s impacts, Magaia stated that simple things have the ability to transform lives and that, as shown in Mozambique with the FASIMO interventions, “with the right tool, we can help beat hunger and be more climate-resilient in our food systems.”

Learn more about the Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund