Making Every Drop or Drip Count!

Modern drip irrigation has arguably become the world's most valued innovation in agriculture since the invention of the impact sprinkler in the 1930s. So what is drip irrigation and why is it so significant for agriculture? John du Plessis tells us more about its significance – and the part he played in piloting this game changing irrigation system in the sugar industry in the 1980s.

Here's his story...

In 1987 I was working as a field manager at RSSC (Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation) in Swaziland. The company had a highly mechanised agricultural operation at the time and was an early adopter of new technologies.

We wanted to expand crop production and grow the business but we soon realised that water scarcity was a limiting factor. We needed to look at new, alternative ways of using water more efficiently. Drip irrigation technology was being developed in Israel for water use in arid areas at the time, and although innovation was part of RSSC's DNA, irrigating cane in an unconventional way had never been done before.

Trials started on a block of land under cotton, seed maize and sugar beans using surface drip irrigation. With the help of a manager with Israeli experience, who helped implement the system and train the operators, the trial was a huge success. Despite the many skeptics, the trials proved that drip irrigation could work in Africa. We then decided to trial the system on cane, something that had never been attempted in the sugar industry before! Adopting drip irrigation required more capital to establish than traditional systems, but we knew that by irrigating directly onto the root zone, cane yields would be significantly better and that would justify the investment.

Trial blocks using surface drip irrigation were established, again with great results. We then rolled out drip, and ultimately subsurface drip, onto the commercial blocks of cane. Water efficiencies improved from 65% under traditional irrigation to in excess of 95% under drip. This made it possible for RSSC to expand its cane operations by another 2000 hectares at the time. Today RSSC is recognised as one of the most efficient, low-cost producers of sugarcane in the world, with some of the largest contiguous blocks of subsurface irrigated cane.

The adoption of drip irrigation had many other positive spinoffs too that we were initially unaware of. We could now apply fertiliser directly to the root zone via the irrigation system, without loss or contamination to the environment, and weed germination decreased thanks to drier soil surfaces. Crop husbandry practices even changed – the land needed less tilling, sub surface drainage requirements decreased, and over time soil profiles improved under drip. The return on investment was so much more than we had imagined, for the business and for the environment alike.

More recently RSSC was able to survive a 1 in a 100 year drought, thanks to its established drip irrigation in place. With the ability to supply water directly onto the root zone in less than 1 mm applications across 14000 hectares, the cane was kept alive with little and sometimes no water.

Against the popular views of the time, "Seeing and doing things differently" in the irrigation space has paid off handsomely. RSSC will remain a legacy to those who were BRAVE – and believed in the vision that drip irrigation was the future for SUSTAINING OUR RESOURCES, one drip at a time.

For more stories like these, visit the LinkedIn profile of John Du Plessis our Sugar & Milling Managing Director.