The Chameleon: Improving water use, food supply and incomes

Posted on August 02, 2019

Globally 1.1 billion people lack access to water and 2.7 billion experience water scarcity for at least one month of the year. Agriculture takes up 60% of freshwater usage. A typical farmer spends a significant amount of time and money irrigating their plots. They often do not realise that they are overwatering, wasting water and washing fertilisers and nutrients away. The Chameleon Sensor is a clever invention that helps farmers decide when to irrigate their crops, improving food production, water usage and incomes.

An expo at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa facility showcased the Chameleon in June 2019.  Dr Joe Stevens from the Department of Agriculture Economics, Extension and Rural Development and a member of the Virtual Irrigation Academy that developed the Chameleon, welcomed the Australia partners and African stakeholders from the countries where the tool has been piloted.

The Chameleon - a digital apparatus is installed into the soil.  The Chameleon soil water monitoring tool helps farmers to see how deep roots are extracting water, how deep water penetrates and the optimal time and duration of irrigation. The field reader connected to the sensor arrays displays the soil moisture status as different coloured lights. Blue means that the soil is wet, green means it is moist and red indicates dry soil. The data is uploaded onto an online system (Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA)) where it is stored. The VIA combines monitoring tools with an online communication and learning system. Farmers can use this data to assess the irrigation patterns of crops grown in different seasons and compare methods of irrigation to identify the best approaches to increasing and improving production.

The Chameleon was launched in 2016 and has been tested in 16 countries. In trials in Mozambique, farmers realised that they were watering too frequently and cut back on the number of times they irrigated their plots. As a result, water productivity went up by over 700%. Also in Tanzania, less watering increased crop sizes and quality because the nutrients and fertiliser stayed in the soil longer, enabling farmers to realise higher returns for their products.

Irrigation is a time-consuming task, often taking up a whole day to complete. This innovative technology also decreases time farmers spend irrigating crops, allowing farmers more time to pursue other activities on and off the farm to bring in additional income. Farmers also saved money on fuel costs because they were not pumping water as frequently.

An engineer from Eswatini expressed that this product stands out from others because of the colour coding, which makes it easier for the farmer to understand. In comparison, other products typically present results in numbers, requiring reading lengthy manuals to interpret. A consultant from South Africa who supports commercial farms in Macadamia nut production said,

“I am extremely confident that this is the way forward for any Macadamia grower in the world. This is the type of simplicity needed.”

Food production is not only being improved at the farm level, but backyard gardens can also benefit from this technology. A participant from an NGO in KwaZulu-Natal shared that,

“People are realising that they don’t need much water to grow fruits and vegetables, and it is inspiring others to want to start backyard gardens.”

With the growing demand to manage water use wisely, more innovations like the Chameleon, that tackle multiple development challenges at the same time, are needed. Improving water usage, food production and incomes can drive progress in meeting several Sustainable Development Goal targets. Strategic innovations can accelerate progress towards 2030 and beyond. 

- Author Mkandawire, E

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