Research in action with IWMI

How the International Water Management Institute took the VIA to Ethiopia

First contact

Back in 2014, Petra Schmitter from the (IWMI) was starting a major new project in Ethiopia and began a search for tools to help farmers save water. There were many choices, but Petra was specifically looking for tools that would capture the imagination of smallholder farmers.

At the time that she made contact with the VIA, we had no Chameleon sensors to spare, so she started with 100 pairs of Wetting Front Detectors.

Maheder Haileselassie / IWMI

A year later we were fascinated to read Petra’s first report. Pilot trials showed that farmers had saved 40% of the irrigation water for potatoes and 24% for onions. Other trials showed they could save $50-150 per ha of fuel for pumps, reduce labour by up to 2.5 days per ha per season and increase water productivity by 20-58%.

This was encouraging, because VIA tools cannot just be handed out to farmers as ‘the solution’. There is a learning process where farmers decide how they are going to deploy the equipment and respond to the pop-up flag of the Wetting front Detector and the Chameleon colours. Petra and her IWMI team had clearly done an outstanding job in engaging with farmers.

IWMI expands the work in Ethiopia

IWMI were working at the 7000 ha Koga irrigation scheme, situated in the headwaters of the Blue Nile. The scheme frequently ran short of water, with up to half the scheme lying idle in dry seasons. If the VIA tools were going to be successful here, they had to be deployed at scale.

Petra’s team worked with 54 Water User Groups (WUGs) in different parts of the Koga scheme. Not everyone could get equipment, so they worked on an ingenious methodology to evaluate information flows through social networks.

Following training on the VIA tools, they asked farmers to self-select how they wanted to be involved. They could have a Wetting Front Detector (WFDs) or Chameleon sensor array installed on their farm, or they could receive advice from a farmer who had the tools.

Petra Schmitter / IWMI

Petra Schmitter / IWMI

The result was that 216 farmers received equipment and installed it on their farms, with 36 WUGs using the WFDs and 18 using Chameleons. A further 431 farmers received information either from WFD or Chameleon users. A control group of 388 farmers were selected from WUGs that were separated some distance from those with equipment or receiving advice. These farmers were followed over two wheat growing seasons.

Both farmers with the tools, and those receiving advice, reduced their water application by about one third. Yields increased by 10 to 20% and this was most evident for those farmers who were at the lower end of the yield spectrum.

By the second year, those with the tools installed in their fields had higher water productivity than those receiving information, but both had significantly higher water productivity than the control group.

A VIA perspective

There are several unique features about this work. First, the team were able to combine their quantitative skills around water use with a deep understanding of how social networks play out across the scheme. They explored the trust farmers had in the different monitoring tools, and the trust farmers had among each other in the giving and receiving of information from the tools.

Second, they were sensitive to the problem of ‘elite capture’ – where the better-off farmers are able to make the best use of a new opportunity. By investing time in training many farmers, the team showed how the VIA tools can quickly lift the performance of all farmers, and particularly those getting the lowest yields.

Third, engaging with groups as well as individuals tackles the most difficult problem of all – water sharing and governance. The team created an awareness for a demand driven scheme, where farmers could obtain water when it was most needed – rather than receiving water on a fixed rotational basis.

This was truly People Centred Learning.

Petra Schmitter / IWMI