Collaborative solutions for complex problems in Southern Africa

4 February 2019

“Don’t mistake education for intelligence when it comes to finding solutions.”

These cryptic but considered words come from Dr André F van Rooyen, a visiting scientist from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Zimbabwe) who presented a guest seminar at Fenner.  The talk focussed on an irrigation program in Southern African nations that is transforming how we think about complex systems within farming in the region.

Led by scientists at the Australian National University in partnership with Australian and African based universities and R&D organizations, the research is changing the way small scale irrigation systems are run in nations like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania.

The program had two main factors that contributed to its success – using new tools to inform farmers with relevant data, and the use of ‘Agricultural Innovation Platforms’ (AIPs) to allow for improved communication and collaboration between irrigators and other stakeholders in the irrigation scheme.

Dr van Rooyen’s comments refer to the incredible work of Zimbabwean farmers within these AIPs. While farmers may have lacked formal education, they came up with new irrigation regimes, changed the crops they grew, engaged with markets and took control of how they manage their own land within small-scale substance farming.

Dr van Rooyen explained how two highly specialised tools, the Chameleon and the FullStop, developed by CSIRO, allowed farmers to gather data in real-time to make farming decisions. The devices measure soil moisture at different depths within the soil, and the levels of nitrate and salts. The genius of the Chameleon lies in is highly effective interface, turning complex numbers into simple language farmers can understand. Farmers then determine their own irrigation requirements from upstream, government controlled water sources.

By basing their requirements on hard data, the farmers have been able to cut in half the amount of water that is used, with less nutrients leached from the soil, resulting in significant increases in the crop outputs in their small plots of land. These changes in practises were designed and implemented by the farmers themselves, based on learning and adaptation of agricultural practices within the framework of the AIPs.  They are now in a positon to train and share experiences with other irrigators and extension officers of other schemes.

Dr van Rooyen spoke about the how problems are rarely solved with a ‘silver bullet’, but instead through understanding the relationships and connections of different parties within complex systems – in this case by using AIPs. The AIPs are multi-stakeholder platforms, involving input from all relevant stakeholders, input suppliers, farmers, market representatives, the irrigation scheme management committee and government representatives, such as extension officers and water authorities. These platforms identify problems, and then develop, implement and evaluate solutions - linking stakeholders and increasing interactions between them, leading to changes in watering regimes, the cropping calendar, and collective purchases.

The flow-on effects of better water management has directly led to less conflict between neighbouring farmers, with instead a growing spirit of collaboration between groups. This has allowed farmers to share knowledge, and pool resources to improve not only their yields, but what is sold to market. By working together farmers have also increased their purchasing power of seeds, fertilizer and agricultural supplies; while profits of sales allowed for other community projects to be funded. The labour saved due to the reduced time it took to irrigate allowed farmers to focus on other activities such as increased weeding or starting other business.

A reviewer of the project was astounded that the farmers of the schemes were investing in back in the infrastructure including irrigation canal repair. In thirty years of working with small-scale irrigation communities she had never seen anything like this happening. The typical approach is the scheme runs down, and the community then ask someone to repair it, as they do not have the funds to do so themselves. Now with increasingly profitable crops grown, and a change in the cropping calendar, the farmers are more able and willing to pay for scheme repairs. This has seen examples of massive improvements in roads, fences, canals, equipment and buildings.

The project, supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is now entering its second phase, as Dr André F van Rooyen and team seek to use the insights gained to scale up the program to other regions, including in Mozambique and Tanzania.  

More information on the irrigation program can be found here.


Led by the Australian National University the project team consists of a partnership of seven organisations including: in Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the University of South Australia; in Mozambique, the National Institute for Irrigation; in Tanzania, Ardhi University; in Zimbabwe, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Zimbabwe; and in South Africa, the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Policy Analysis Network.