Taking shelter under the solar panels on a rainy day in southern Malawi, the women sing:
"VIA lift us up – Others have failed us."
This is not the line we expected to hear. When we started developing the VIA monitoring tools, we assumed they would be used for routine irrigation decisions. Now we see that the story runs much deeper.
These outcomes are documented in scientific papers, VIA Research Publications. The results are remarkable. It is not unusual for yields to increase by 30-50%, while using substantially less water. But what is even more amazing is hearing directly from the farmers themselves.
Abdalah Tave grows vegetables in the Iringa region of Tanzania. He explains:
"When the Kinyonga (Swahili for Chameleon) is always blue then the Bendera (Swahili for the Wetting Front Detector) will go white."
Abdalah is speaking about a nitrate test strip, which rapidly changes colour from purple to white as nitrate is leached out of the root zone. The constant blue colour of the Chameleon sensors told him he was applying too much water. Others observed that the youngest emerging leaves were greener if you skipped irrigations. The concept of over irrigation and washing away nutrients spread quickly among farmers across the scheme.
A few hundred kilometres away, different farmers are learning the same lesson for themselves. Peter Ilumbo is a vegetable producer from the Chamwino district of Tanzania. He says:
"Since the introduction of the VIA monitoring tools, I have learnt that I was choking the crops with water. No wonder the crops then were thin and yellow. The fertilizer seemed not to help as it often got washed away by excess water, making it unavailable to the plants. This year, and for the first time in my life, I am set to earn Tsh 2,311,000 (about US$1,050) from a single harvest."
Malawian extension officer, Happy Nyirenda explains that the VIA tools helped to bring the whole community together.
"At this scheme we have all benefitted because we are working as a team. There is increased group cohesion. There are only 20 farmers who have these tools, but others are indirectly benefiting from their colleagues – so there is teamwork and cooperation."
This teamwork has far reaching consequences. Farmers no longer view availability of water as just their own problem. By cooperating with other farmers, they can get an even better outcome. Mr Nyirena continues:
"Farmers are really benefitting from this technology as it is saving their labour and saving their water. The potential for this scheme is 25 ha. They used to cultivate 17 ha, but now they have managed to cultivate 22 ha."
Irrigated land can take up to $10,000 /ha to develop. So, when everyone works together to get another 5 ha under cultivation, they are effectively reclaiming $50,000 worth of assets.
At a nearby scheme, Chief Irrigation Officer Tinkho Mpezeni has also observed the value of giving information to farmers in a way that is easy to share and understand. As soon as farmers trust the information from the VIA tools, they realise that do not need to fight over water and can focus on improving water supply across the scheme as a whole.
"This irrigation scheme - the potential is about 30 ha - but in the previous years they were irrigating less than half, just because they were scrambling for water … because they did not know when to irrigate. But since the sensors were put in, the farmers were in a position to apply the right amount of water, thereby irrigating the entire piece of land."
Chief Mkukumila from Ngolowindo scheme in Malawi recalls:
"Before the tools the aim was to get the whole furrow filled to the top with water, without knowing that we are being wasteful. In the past we used to argue, even fight each other over water, but now the WFD (Wetting Front Detector) has ended those conflicts."
The most senior member of Ngolowindo scheme, Eliza Muziwa added:
"The tools have come while I am already old, if they would have come earlier, by now I would have been enjoying the benefits."
Anatalia Kilienyi was the first farmer to install Chameleon sensors near Iringa in Tanzania. She grows tomatoes, onions and green peppers which used to be irrigated two to three times per week. Six years later she is still using the VIA tools and involved in field days to spread the word to other farmers.
"Tools are assisting us to save water - you can irrigate with up to two weeks interval; we are no longer fighting for water, so I recommend that you install these tools to other farmers."
The VIA started off as a research project to test whether farmers could use Chameleon sensors and Wetting Front Detectors to manage water and solutes. Within the first season, farmers had moved past simple monitoring. They were quickly learning better ways to manage their crops. As they shared their learnings and worked together, the governance of their schemes started to improve.
This is the VIA journey. From monitoring to learning to governance.