Innovation through problem-solving

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ACIAR has a 40-year history of agricultural innovation and solutions, driven by research collaborations. Over the years, ACIAR-supported projects have contributed to the international knowledge bank of agriculture, fisheries and forestry. While knowledge is a lasting legacy, knowledge in itself is not always enough to drive innovation and development.

Key to successful uptake of new tools and technology – a popular definition of innovation – is the innovator having intimate knowledge of in-country issues and strong connections with the people who will be using these new tools and technologies. There is little point investing in and developing new technology that is not understood, or trusted, by the very people who will benefit the most from its development.

ACIAR has a strong track record of brokering and investing in projects that lead to innovation. The ACIAR partnership model is not just based on technical expertise. When required, the partnership also encompasses organisations across the innovation chain. This flexible approach to building project teams has resulted in some landmark tools and technologies to deal with particular problems or issues faced by smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the Indo-Gangetic Plain, direct sowing of wheat into rice crop residue using the Happy Seeder has resulted in reduced crop residue burning and improved water use by the following crop, boosting the sustainable production of wheat for human consumption. Air pollution in the region has been reduced because the stubble is no longer burned, and soil health and quality have improved.

The Chameleon soil water sensor has maximised irrigation efficiency in rural communities across eastern and southern Africa and more recently into Asia. The simple-to-use sensor, which uses coloured indicators to let farmers know when to water, is now being manufactured locally in South Africa, providing employment and economic activity in the region as well as conserving water resources.

The spindleless rotary veneer lathe proved that high-quality veneer could be recovered from senile coconut palms (and other under-utilised forest resources), producing a veneer that can be used for the manufacture of engineered wood products, and providing a means to add value to nonproductive palm trees in the Pacific region.

The new technologies and tools have provided direct benefits to the farmers who use them, but there have been regional and national benefits as well. Successful technologies developed through ACIAR-funded projects and partnerships are potentially manufactured in country, providing economic benefits for local manufacturers and communities.


A solution for farmers and communities in rice-growing areas

More than 4 million hectares of the Indo-Gangetic Plain of north-western India is farmed as a rice–wheat cropping system. The rice-growing season is timed to benefit from monsoon rains, due to concerns of over-extracting groundwater. The wheat crop is planted almost immediately after the rice crop has been harvested. This system creates a short period (about 10 to 20 days) to harvest rice, manage rice crop residue and plant wheat.

Many of the 2.5 million farmers in north-western India will burn rice crop residue in preparation for wheat planting, as do rice growers the world over. Burning the residue to remove many tonnes per hectare of plant stalks and leaf material remaining after harvest has been considered the only practical option available, despite growing concern about the smoke and pollutants created by burning residue. Annually, more than 60,000 deaths in India are attributed to the pollution from agricultural burning.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, agricultural engineer Mr John Blackwell, now Professor Blackwell, was based at the Griffith laboratory of CSIRO Land and Water, in the heart of Australia’s rice-growing region. He was well aware of the issue in his hometown as well as hearing about the problem from fellow scientists working with rice growers in India.

Mr Blackwell also understood the constraints of the cropping systems in both countries. Farmers were faced with very heavy residues from the rice crop, 6–8 t/ha in India and up to 14 t/ha in Australia. Rice straw contains high levels of silica and does not break down or decompose quickly. Consequently, direct drill implements that were developed as part of the evolution of conservation farming practices could not effectively sow seed into rice residue.

In the early 2000s ACIAR Research Program Manager for Land and Water Resources and South Asia Program Adviser, Dr Tony Fischer, asked Mr Blackwell to think about how you could sow wheat into heavy rice stubbles. Mr Blackwell’s first response was that it was impossible, but that night a Eureka moment resulted in the application for two provisional patents. Both were tractor-drawn implements that cut and lifted the straw and deposited it as a mulch behind the direct drill tynes.

The prototype built by Mr Blackwell, together with technician Armanath at Punjab Agricultural University, worked amazingly well and it successfully sowed through 10 t/ha of rice straw. Mr Blackwell named this machine the ‘Happy Seeder’. However, there was room for improvement, and ACIAR funded CSIRO and Punjab Agricultural University to further develop the idea.

Public-sector researchers, especially Dr Harminder Singh from Punjab Agricultural University, and private-sector developers in India continued to refine the implement.

Professor Blackwell particularly credits Dasmesh Mechanical Works, in Punjab, for the innovation that culminated in the development of the Turbo Happy Seeder, which uses a rotor to cut and brush away the rice straw, clearing the way for the machine’s sowing tyne.

Almost two decades later, science, development and environment organisations continue to identify the Happy Seeder as the best prospect to provide an alternative to burning crop stubble in India.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability in 2021, scientists from organisations including CIMMYT, the National Agricultural Science Centre (India), the Borlaug Institute of South Asia and The Nature Conservancy reported the benefits of the Happy Seeder for farmers. Leaving crop residue as surface mulch helps reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, suppresses weed growth, buffers soil temperature and facilitates a more efficient uptake of water and nutrients by plant roots. Labour requirements for establishing the wheat crop are reduced by as much as 80%, irrigation requirements are reduced by 20–25% and herbicide use reduced by up to 50%. The authors concluded that the benefits of the Happy Seeder for farmers and for society warrants policy support for its wider adoption, along with stronger enforcement on bans on stubble burning.

The Happy Seeder was given strong endorsement in a 2021 article by the global organisation, The Nature Conservancy. Dr Annapurna Vancheswaran, Managing Director of Nature Conservancy programs in India, is quoted, ‘We aim to come up with protocols that ensure a win-win for environment and farmers. Presently, the Happy Seeder is the most scalable solution which singly resolves the twin challenges of addressing air pollution and improving soil health.’


Spindleless lathe adds value to non-productive palms

Coconut palm is an important source of food and livelihoods for many Pacific island families and communities; however, it is no longer the main economic crop for most countries. As a result, a large percentage of coconut plantings have lost their vitality and productivity. These nonproductive trees are referred to as senile palms. In addition to no longer being productive, senile palms are at risk of becoming breeding grounds for rhinoceros beetles.

If the senile palms could be turned into high-value products, farmers would have an incentive to regenerate their coconut plantations by removing the senile palms and replanting with younger and more productive palms.

Research into potential use of senile palms for the production of wood and wood products had been underway since the late 1970s. In 2005, ACIAR supported a research partnership between SPC and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, as well as a number of Pacific island stakeholders, which revisited the properties of coconut wood and identified the technology and processes for the manufacture of high-value flooring, targeting the tropical hardwood flooring markets in Europe.

This first project produced high-quality flooring products from coconut palms, but the timber presented a challenge for traditional sawmilling equipment because of the structure of the wood.

Unlike trees, which grow up and outwards, increasing their diameter and adding a new layer of wood each year, coconut palms grow upwards like grass and never achieve diameters more than about 300 millimetres. While the outside of a 60-year-old palm can be as dense as 1,000 kg/m3, the middle is a very soft 250 kg/m3.

Men walking on a dirt road next to a trailer loaded with about 16 coconut palm stems.
In Fiji, stems of senile coconut palms are loaded onto a trailer to be taken to a mill. Research led by the University of Queensland resulted in modifications to the spindleless lathe, which means around 70% of a coconut stem can be recovered to produce high-quality engineered wood products. Photo: Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, Queensland | 2010

The researchers turned their attention to relatively new spindleless lathe technology, used for the production of rotary veneers, as a possible solution to the problem.

A new ACIAR-supported project was established, from 2012 to 2016, and project leader, Dr Rob McGavin of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries explained the challenge ahead.

‘Traditional approaches to producing rotary veneer use spindles to hold the centre of the log and rotate the log allowing veneer to be recovered. The problem is that these spindles just don’t work with the soft centre of coconut stems.’

After the completion of a comprehensive laboratory-scale research program, the project took a major step forward with the acquisition and modification of a lathe to ‘peel’ coconut stems.

Sourced from Malaysia, the spindleless lathe was modified by scientists at the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, then shipped to Fiji and installed at the Timber Utilization Division of the Ministry of Forestry in Suva.

‘The modified spindleless lathes have drive rollers that run on the log periphery for the length of the log and combine with a parallel blade to “unroll” or peel the log in a 3–5 millimetre sheet, leaving a residual core of about 40 millimetres. This means we can recover around 70% of the stem from a senile coconut palm, compared to 20% or less using other options. The result is a high-quality veneer that can be used for the manufacture of structural and appearance engineered wood products.

‘Spindleless lathes can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of traditional veneer lathes, so this has great potential for widespread adoption in many developing countries.’


Simple practical device saves time and water

The Chameleon soil water sensor is one of the most novel and transformative pieces of technology to arise from ACIAR-supported research. The brainchild of Dr Richard Stirzaker, a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO, the sensor has been designed to make soil moisture measurement simple for smallholder irrigators – not only to aid adoption but to also to enable irrigators to manage water, fertiliser and time more efficiently, and ultimately, improve crop yields.

The Chameleon measures soil moisture levels by embedding sensors into the rootzone at three depths to show where plant roots are actively taking up water. Rather than the results being a set of complex numbers, Dr Stirzaker and his team married the science of moisture detection with practicality. There are three LED indicators on the tool, and based on the moisture levels measured, the lights show crop water requirements: blue means ‘irrigation not required’, green means ‘monitor and prepare to irrigate’ and red means ‘irrigation required’.

The Chameleon sensors are ID-chipped and the reader is wi-fi enabled, which allows the data to be shared. In addition to farmers monitoring the sensors in the field via the coloured indicators, the information can also be sent to the cloud via mobile phones so that extension workers and researchers can learn from farmers’ experiences, and managers of irrigation schemes can better plan water supply.

A woman in a blue beanie and red and white top reads a soil moisture monitoring device in a field of tomatoes.
Ms Anatalia Kilienyi, a farmer from Kiwere Irrigation Scheme in Tanzania, sets up the Chameleon soil moisture monitoring device in her tomato crop. In pilot schemes in Malawi and Tanzania, irrigators using the device to manage irrigation timing reduced water use by 50% by extending the intervals between irrigation. Photo: ACIAR | 2021

To support the adoption and development of the Chameleon, Dr Stirzaker created the Virtual Irrigation Academy to connect the global community of people discovering how to use the Chameleon and related technology to manage water to grow more food.

Launched in 2015, with the support of ACIAR, the academy established pilot schemes in Malawi and Tanzania using technologies to promote efficient and cost-effective irrigation, including its flagship tool, the Chameleon. By 2018 the combined technologies had substantial positive impacts for irrigators:

  • Water use in pilot schemes in Malawi and Tanzania was reduced by 50% by extending the intervals between irrigation. Instead of irrigating four to five times a month, smallholders are now irrigating only once or twice a month.
  • Unused land in irrigation schemes brought back into production using the ‘saved’ water increased irrigated areas by up to 30%.
  • Less-frequent irrigation means smallholders have more time to devote to grazing livestock, cultivating other crops and, for some women, building off-farm businesses to generate more family income.

In 2022, the Virtual Irrigation Academy has been adopted by other ACIAR-supported projects and the Chameleon is being sold in 20 countries, with smallholder farmers experiencing up to 30% increases in yields and 30% reductions in water use.

ACIAR funding for the project ends in 2023, so Dr Stirzaker has turned his research project into a non-profit organisation. The organisation will likely adopt a hybrid business model so that the large swathes of data collected by the Virtual Irrigation Academy can be sold to water investors working in development, while inexpensive monitoring tools can be purchased directly by smallholder irrigators.

‘The context of smallholder irrigation and the opportunities are different in each country where we work. Local organisations are best placed to meet the needs of farmers in their area, so we want to facilitate that. At the same time the academy will provide ongoing training and support, so local organisations can continue to build their expertise.

‘Ultimately, we want partners to succeed with the sensor and Virtual Irrigation Academy. That means not just selling equipment for money but forming a true partnership in terms of knowledge sharing, capacity building and ownership. A real partnership is giving away control.’

Farmers are really benefiting from this technology as it is saving their labour and saving their water. The potential for this scheme is 25 hectares. They used to cultivate 17 hectares, but now they have managed to cultivate 22 hectares.

Mr Happy Nyirenda
Extension officer and participant in the Virtual Irrigation Academy, Malawi

icon of a camera illustration
Featured left: Mr Malkeet Singh, farmer, with his Happy Seeder, in northern India. The seeder sows wheat seed directly into rice stubble. The implement was developed in Australia with ACIAR support, and further refined in collaboration with partners in India. The Happy Seeder has resulted in reduced crop residue burning and improved crop water use, boosting the sustainable production of wheat for human consumption. Photo: Coretext | Melissa Marino | 2016 
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