For India’s Farmers, a Bare-Bones Drip System

February 14, 2011, 7:49 AM

For India’s Farmers, a Bare-Bones Drip System

By VIKAS BAJAJ

Farmers deploying the Driptech irrigation system in southern India.DriptechFarmers deploying the Driptech irrigation system in southern India.

Green: Living

During a recent trip to a rural part of western India to report on rising food prices, I met two kinds of farmers — those with access to irrigation and those without. The differences between the two were stark.

Those with drip irrigation or sprinklers invariably were reaping rich harvests and profits. But the vast majority of India’s farmers fall in the second camp: they water their crops by flooding their fields with water from wells, or, if they are really poor, they simply wait for the monsoon rains.

These farmers seem to live from crop cycle to crop cycle. Some years they hit a bumper crop if the rain is timely and plentiful but not overwhelming, but a bad flood or a weak monsoon can destroy them.

Manik Singh Jadhav was one of the fortunate farmers. I interviewed him inthis video. He has a master’s degree in English literature but chose to farm the family plot, which now has 10 acres. He has a system from Jain Irrigation, an Indian company that has been growing at a breakneck pace selling drip systems that can deliver a measured quantity of water and fertilizers to the roots of every plant.

Mr. Jadhav says farmers must invest in irrigation if they are to break out of the cycle of debt and failure that traps so many in India.

“I fully believed that there is a bright future in farming,” he told me, “which is why I decided to farm even after I got an education.”

But a Jain Irrigation system costs about 45,000 rupees, or about $1,000, an acre. The Indian government provides a subsidy to cover as much as 50 percent of the cost of the system, but that is still too expensive for farmers like Arun Namder Talele, whom I also quote in my story.

Mr. Talele has farm loans of about 80,000 rupees ($1,800) and earns less than 20,000 rupees an acre on his five-acre vegetable farm. That makes it unlikely that he will be investing in drip irrigation for the farm anytime soon.

So, in effect many farmers are too poor to make the investment that could pull them out of their poverty.

But there is a way out, argues Peter Frykman, the chief executive of Driptech, a start-up firm based in Mountain View, Calif.

His company sells simple drip irrigation systems in India for as little as 6,500 rupees ($144) for half an acre. Unlike the Jain system, the Driptech product does not have specialized pipes or an emitter that releases a measured quantity of water.

Rather, Mr. Frykman says his pipes are made by the same machines that make plastic grocery bags. Holes are then punched into the pipes from which water can drop onto roots. The pipes can be connected to a basic barrel of water placed on a stool.

The simplicity of the system is limiting to some extent. Mr. Frykman says it is best used in fields of one acre or less – which he said includes the majority of farmers in India and China. Even farmers with larger holdings often have land in several different locations, making them potential customers.

“If you look around the world, there are about 500 million small-plot farmers,” he told me over Skype, “and about half of them are in India and China.”

Mr. Frykman, a 27-year-old who studied mechanical engineering at Stanford, is working in India with Godrej, a well-regarded Indian business conglomerate. Driptech has so far sold 200 systems to Godrej.

Although the company manufactures its systems in California, Mr. Frykman said he hopes to franchise production to enterprises in India and China that could make them in small workshops in villages and small towns. He has raised money from angel investors and is now raising money from venture capital firms. I first heard about him from a venture capitalist in Bangalore.

It is hard to say whether Driptech will be successful in scaling up its technology and building a profitable business by selling pipes with holes to subsistence farmers in India, China and elsewhere. But it’s interesting to see someone trying to solve such a basic problem that limits the incomes and production of so many poor farmers.

Such innovations could also be a crucial water conservation effort. In much of India, waste and inefficiency have severely depleted groundwater, as my colleague Somini Sengupta wrote in a three-part series. Some farmers in India’s Punjab breadbasket have resorted to digging wells as deep as 650 feet. And the water that they pull up is increasingly briny.

It almost sounds too good to be true: a technology that cheaply improves crop yields, reduces water use and allows the monsoon to replenish groundwater aquifers. Let’s hope it isn’t.

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