ABE students partner with African farmers

Author: Angie Roberts
Clustered around a desktop computer in a cramped office in Accra, Ghana, a handful of Purdue students watch the screen as their African partner enters data into a spreadsheet. Typing in such parameters as slope, soil type, and available water inflow, the water management consultant develops the ideal furrow irrigation plan for a maize crop being cultivated just down the road.

Victoria DeStazioIn May, a semester’s worth of work for five agricultural and biological engineering seniors culminated in a visit to this office for the International Water Management Institute—West Africa Region (IWMI). The students were one of several Purdue global design teams dispatched around the world this spring to tackle real-life challenges for their senior design projects.

For Victoria DeStazio and her team, the challenge was to develop a simple, relatively inexpensive tool for maximizing crop yields in Ghana. Food scarcity is common in the developing nation, but irrigation systems are limited, both because of weather and financial conditions.

“Ghana has a Sub-Saharan climate in the south and then a tropical climate in the north,” says DeStazio. “But the farmers don’t have the means to do the more efficient pressure drip irrigation we have, so they use furrow and basin irrigation.”

In furrow irrigation, channels along each side of the plants are filled with water. In basin irrigation, farmers flood a field with water for 24 hours. For each method, the amount of water used and the time intervals between applications affects the crop yield.

That’s where the spreadsheet comes in handy. Farmers typically know which type of irrigation system—furrow or basin—is ideal for their land. But the Irrigation Quick Design Tool provides them with an ideal application calendar based on factors such as slope, crop type, soil type, and available water inflow.

The spreadsheet also assists with irrigation design. Plus, it helps farmers assess water quality, alerting them to high-risk pH, and other concentrations that may require dilution before irrigation begins.

“People around the world have been farming much longer than we’ve been designing computer tools,” DeStazio says. “We designed a user-friendly program to give them the rough calculations they need in an efficient way.”

For five months, the Purdue students collaborated with IWMI staff, gathering data from local farms and sending sample spreadsheets back to Ghana. Along the way, they validated their work with a program from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Although the USDA calculator is highly accurate, it has a steep learning curve. “It took us a couple weeks to master their program,” DeStazio says. “Ours is more user-friendly. There’s no trying to figure out points or angles. And we were within 5 to 10 percent of the USDA’s version.”

In early May, the students traveled to IWMI’s office in the coastal city of Accra. There, they presented the final version of the program, demonstrating features and gathering feedback. Each afternoon they visited relevant sites, such as farms, a water treatment plant, and the University of Ghana.

For the aspiring water-treatment engineer, the trip—and the months of preparation leading up to it—gave her a taste of cross-cultural collaboration. That experience will be valuable to her, even if her teammates are right next door.

“Being an engineer is not an individual job; it’s a team job, whether you’re working with a group for funding or working to ensure the project is complete,” says DeStazio, who will graduate in December. “Knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses is important in working not only internationally, but locally.”