The 2015-2016 drought affected an estimated 41 million people across the Southern African region. Many rural communities were left vulnerable to malnutrition and a myriad of knock-on economic and health impacts.
World Vision Australia and Australian Aid established the Southern Africa Livelihoods Program (SALP) to assist some of the vulnerable farming communities across rural Southern Africa.
SALP invested in water infrastructure with community farming groups across Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa to get the farmers back on their feet. But water tanks, pipes, pumps and irrigation equipment are expensive.
World Vision Australia approached scientist Dr Richard Stirzaker from the Australian science research agency, CSIRO, who had developed the Chameleon sensor. The project decided that the Chameleon was the missing link in their water investment plan. They purchased 100 sensors and 20 readers.
World Vision staff took 16 farmers from vegetable enterprises plus government officials from Lesotho and Eswatini to attend Chameleon sensor training in South Africa in 2018.
Tsepo Motsamai was the Project Coordinator for northern Lesotho. He returned from the training in South Africa with a deeper understanding of the value of using the Chameleon system. He saw first-hand how the low-tech approach in its design made adoption easy for farmers. He became a passionate Chameleon advocate.
In the mountainous landscape of northern Lesotho, Lehlohonolo Phatela and Keneuoe Hlomisi crouch down to check the reading on one of the Chameleon sensors. The two are active members of the Limamarela Vegetable Group. Since returning from training in South Africa, Lehlohonolo has taught the other members, including Keneuoe, how to use the system.
Limamarela Vegetable Group grows vegetables on nine hectares of land nestled at the bottom of a valley close to a nearby river. Farmers have traditionally overwatered their gardens and the sensors have enabled them to manage their water much more effectively. Knowing when to irrigate and when to not irrigate has brought a huge change to farming practice; a change that is making it much more profitable.Lehlohonolo recalls.
"When the moisture levels are high, we don’t assume how many days to skip the irrigation, we just go and take a look at the system to know how high our moisture levels are. It has helped us a lot in saving water as well, and the nutrients are still present in our soil."
In rural Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) most families grow vegetables around their homestead. Wendy Zwane from Sigombeni village recalls the difficulties she faced as a subsistence farmer:
"I had a small garden at home, but the chickens ate all the vegetables."
World Vision supported Wendy and a group of other community members, to begin farming together. The Sigombeni Vegetable Group was born and after a few seasons, they were able to produce enough vegetables to sell directly to NAMBoard, Eswatini’s (Swaziland) National Agricultural Marketing Board.
Wendy Zwane has the largest individual plot and every day of the week (except Sunday) she can be found tirelessly tending to her plot that often includes broccoli, green beans, spinach, chillies, cauliflower, capsicum and tomatoes.
The SALP project brought the first Chameleon sensors to both Lesotho and Eswatini. The Virtual Irrigation Academy is eager to form new partnership opportunities with Non-Government Organisations like World Vision Australia.
Farmers have traditionally overwatered their gardens and the sensors have enabled them to manage their water much more effectively. Knowing when to irrigate and when to not irrigate has brought a huge change to farming practice; a change that is making it much more profitable.
The Chameleon sensors are an easy-to-use and effective system to monitor levels of water in the soil. For farmers like Lehlohonolo, use of the sensors is vital in increasing his group’s vegetable yields, while also saving money and precious water.