In many parts of Africa smallholder farmers are grappling with arid conditions and inefficient irrigation systems that are negatively affecting the growth of their crops.

To address this the DIVAGRI project is testing a clay-based irrigation system called SLECI that stands for Self-regulating, Low Energy, Clay-based Irrigation. 

SLECI uses the actual suction force of the surrounding soil for regulation of the system’s water release. “The concept, production, and installation is simple and adaptable to rural environments,” says DIVAGRI scientific lead Dr. Tiziana Centofanti (ALCN).

It works by transferring water to the soil via clay elements positioned near the plant root. Dry soil means high suction tension, resulting in high water extraction from the clay element.

Before the technology developed by DIVAGRI can be disseminated to small-scale farmers, it is crucial to conduct thorough testing. This testing phase is set to occur at designated pilot sites located in Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia. These sites have been chosen strategically to represent a diverse range of local conditions.

The testing process is not merely a one-way transfer of technology. Instead, it involves active dialogue with small farmers and other stakeholders at each pilot site. Through these conversations, DIVAGRI is able to adapt and tailor the technology to better suit the unique conditions and needs of each location.

At the pilot site at Welgevallen Experimental Farm in Stellenbosch, South Africa this adaptation has involved placing the clay-based irrigation in air pots which promote rapid growth of Pecan Nut trees.

This innovative approach has two significant benefits. Firstly, the use of clay drip irrigation reduces water consumption, making the process more sustainable and efficient. Secondly, the use of air pots to manipulate tree roots from tap to fibrous accelerates the fruiting process of the Pecan Nut trees.

By transforming the root structure from tap to fibrous, the trees can bear fruit earlier than usual. This not only increases productivity but also allows farmers to reap the benefits of their labour sooner. This innovation holds great promise for improving agricultural practices and livelihoods in these regions.

Meanwhile, at the pilot site in Buan, Botswana scientists are predicting that SLECI as an irrigation system could lead to about 60- 80% water savings. Moreover, they believe that because it does not need electricity, it does not need to be switched on so small farmers don’t need to regularly check their irrigation.

The Buan research team is currently manually and remotely collecting data about the soil water dynamics under the SLECI system in comparison with conventional drip irrigation.

“The SLECI system has numerous advantages,” says Dr Tiziana Centofanti (ALCN). “It can save water, energy and labour and it is ideal for remote areas in Africa.”