App for good: Making a water impact

In an interview with Ben Summers, Sustainability Officer at Innocent Drinks, we explored how Irri-fresca creates a long lasting impact and more efficient water use in a water stressed area of South-West Spain. We also delved into the discussion of the role of technology in addressing the world’s biggest challenges.

 

Why is this app for good?

 

Irri-fresa is looking to see a healthy agricultural sector in Spain alongside a thriving ecological and environmental ecosystem through increased water efficiency. It is an educational programme that helps farmers to manage irrigation system for strawberries efficiently by ensuring no unnecessary water is being used. The key tool for that is the use of an app, which informs farmers about amount and frequency of irrigation.

 

How does the app work?

 

The app is online and free to use (both on a computer and a smartphone). The farmer will input a lot of information about their own farm, such as; the size of the farm, details of their irrigation system, soil type, the nearest weather station – to build up a picture for the software.

 

Having captured all the data, the software will build an irrigation schedule for the farm. It then could be changed on a weekly basis throughout the season, depending on the weather and the climate events. There is a recommended schedule, which fully follows the guidance of the software, as well as an option to customise.

 

What is the background to the project? What drove its development? 

 

The South-West of Seville is an important socio-economic region as it produces over 70% of strawberries in Spain, and it’s in the same water catchment area for Doñana national park. The park is a wetland and a habitat to a number of species that are unique to the area, such as endangered Iberian lynx, and 6 million of migratory birds, which makes it a UNESCO World Heritage site. There were concerns that agriculture in the region was depriving the wetland of water.

 

The first phase of the project was to understand if water use could be more efficient. The research showed that in some cases moisture absorbed into the soil below the strawberry roots, which meant the water wasn’t being used by the plant. Partnership with the University of Córdoba found that farmers could reduce their water use between 10% to 40% and still have the same yield with no negative effects on the quality of strawberries.

 

Why did you choose the tech route to address this water tension?

 

Technology provides the ability to scale. As more and more people use the app there is an ability to capture and refine information and make it even more accurate. It is linked to the local weather station, which helps to make it more relevant and specific. But hopefully in time with feedback we can make the app more interactive, so the users can share their experiences and lessons learnt. In the future versions it could be self-reported. For example, the weather parameters could be entered by the farmers in the region, which will make it even more accurate.

 

What was your biggest implementation challenge and how did you solve it?

 

It would always be a journey when you are encouraging behaviour change. Engaging farmers to use less water takes time. When it’s your livelihood crop, the risks are high.

 

To succeed, it was important to have a solid evidence of data. Secondly, it was key to make that transition in behaviour change as easy as possible. At the beginning of the year you input data, and from there the software takes it over as it produces a schedule to follow. Being on the ground, and having a quality face to face time with farmers was also very important.

 

How scalable is this program?

 

Very scalable. The 7-year history proved that. What’s exciting for the 2016-17 strawberry season is that we opened up the project to more partners via the Sustainability Agriculture Initiative Platform (SAI). Through that we have other buyers, such as; Ahold Delhaize, BerryWorld, Coop Switzerland, Group Danone, Edeka, The Coca-Cola Company, Marks & Spencer, Migros, Sainsbury’s, SVZ, Tesco and Unilever.  Innocent buys only 1% of strawberries grown in that region, with more companies participating in the program we now have direct access to farmers representing over 20% of the region’s strawberry production. 

 

In your opinion, what’s the role of tech in addressing the world’s biggest challenges?

 

The technology will be a powerful tool as it facilitates access to the information. The rate and the speed of its change is only going to help. If historically sharing lessons learnt and getting feedback might have taken years, now this process is being spread out through tech, which leads to an increased efficiency and improved pace.

 

Global access to tech is increasing as well, which is also going to open up more regions and opportunities to leverage tech for the communal good.

 

The app we spoke about is about helping, educating and doing it in a simple way to our farmers around water use. What would make it work even better, will be knowing the information on the ground from the farmers, such as; current rainfall and temperatures, any particular diseases or pest that is affecting the crop at a given time. If other members of our supply chain can have access to this information, then together we will be able to respond and adapt much better and faster to any supply chain threats.

 

Are there any tech risks we need to be aware of?

 

The scalability is a great strength, but you need to be mindful of not making anything arbitrary. Just because you can reach more people this won’t be one size fits all approach.

 

Tech shouldn’t substitute personal interaction.   

 

Spending time on the ground, understanding the local community concerns and challenges is important. The relationships side will always go hand in hand with any technological advances. Adopting the tech and adopting the use of this new way of sourcing information takes time and such message is best conveyed by a strong relationship that is built on personal interaction. Whatever your business is it’s really important to engage people to come on a journey with you.

 

Elina Yumasheva is head of content at The Crowd. 

 

Photograph: Flickr/ FoodBev Photos. 

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