Collaborating for irrigation access solutions: Where policy and engineering meet

Collaborating for irrigation access solutions: Where policy and engineering meet

A J-WAFS connection brings together two MIT research teams helping to advance irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa.


As food demand rises due to growing populations with changing consumption patterns in Africa and around the globe, increased agricultural output is crucial. Since most agriculture across the African continent is currently rain-fed, increased availability of irrigation — especially water- and energy-efficient systems like drip irrigation — can help. Two research teams at MIT have been invested in this challenge, exploring solutions in Senegal from different disciplinary standpoints. But it was not until this fall, when the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) facilitated a connection between the two teams, that they learned of their overlapping interests and how each group’s research could support the other.

At MIT, J-WAFS is a strong proponent of convergence research practices to help drive solutions to the Earth’s pressing water and food systems challenges. Convergence research is driven by specific complex problems that involve deep integration across disciplines. J-WAFS funds MIT research across all five schools and emphasizes collaboration through their grants and other research support across the Institute. J-WAFS was uniquely positioned to know about these two research efforts — one based in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) — that were both conducting fieldwork on irrigation in Senegal. Upon realizing that each project was unaware of the other’s efforts, J-WAFS was able to engineer a research exchange in order to support the success of two distinct projects on irrigation technology and access in Africa. 

Researchers in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab at MIT, led by Amos Winter, the Ratan N. Tata Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, are using an engineering and design approach. The goal is to design efficient drip-irrigation technologies to be used in sub-Saharan Africa. However, transitioning smallholder farms from rain-fed irrigation to drip irrigation is a complicated process; previous attempts have not been widely effective. 

A J-WAFS seed grant has been supporting a different research team, led by Stephen Graves, Abraham J. Siegel Professor of Management Science at the Sloan School of Management, and Bishwapriya Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning in DUSP, to address this problem from another angle. Focusing on Senegal, the research team has been investigating irrigation technology use, as well as barriers, from a supply chain and policy perspective. They have been talking to farmers and irrigation equipment suppliers for almost two years and are now analyzing the data in order to share it with policymakers and with stakeholders in Senegal across the irrigation technology supply chain.

When the GEAR Lab began working with J-WAFS last summer on funding a research proposal that focused on developing irrigation technology for that market, J-WAFS realized that the DUSP team had quite a bit of highly relevant knowledge to share, and that both groups could benefit by engaging with the other. J-WAFS Executive Director Renee Robins arranged a virtual introduction and subsequently hosted a meeting that brought the student researchers together. These efforts have sparked a collaboration between the two teams. “The seed funding awarded to our team by J-WAFS allowed us to cultivate strong connections in both Senegal and at MIT,” says Bish Sanyal, co-leader of the DUSP project. “Collaborating with the GEAR Lab was a wonderful opportunity to share the knowledge that our Senegalese partners have shared with us over the past two years.”

The GEAR Lab’s research proposal was to the international water technology company Xylem, a corporate partner through J-WAFS’ Research Affiliate program. They proposed a sponsored research collaboration that focuses on expanding low-cost pumping solutions for drip irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa, an interest that was sparked when Xylem participants heard Winter speak at a water and food conference co-sponsored by J-WAFS and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program. As part of Xylem’s mission to solve water issues, the company focuses on leveraging technology and innovation to address major challenges such as water affordability, water scarcity, and infrastructure resilience.

Irrigation technology design is a central focus of the GEAR Lab, which has been working since 2012 on enhancing drip-irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in India to increase their water availability, cost savings, and energy efficiency. Although drip irrigation has been used by smallholder farmers in India for decades, this is not the case in Africa. In Indian markets, the currently available equipment is not as sustainable as it could be. It is expensive due to the high water consumption and fuel needs inherent in the design. This is the challenge the GEAR Lab seeks to address. The lab has developed designs that decrease the energy consumed by pumping and moving water, and improved the dripper efficiency. The resulting systems save power and water and are less expensive.