CELLPHONES telling farmers when to irrigate their crops could help them boost production and save water, sugar growers say, as a pilot project helps small emerging farmers. Small-scale black farmers around Pongola, a few kilometres south of South Africa?s border with Swaziland, receive one text message a week telling them whether they should irrigate their sugar crops that week.
"I get an SMS every Wednesday," said Dlouwakhe Mthembu, a former taxi driver now growing sugar as a cash crop on 10 hectares of land recently reclaimed from the bush. "I?m very satisfied. I was sceptical at first but now I?m convinced."
Over-irrigating sugar crops can reduce the yield, as well as wasting water ? a fragile resource in southern Africa, where aid workers say drought has left more than 10 million people facing food shortages this year.
Mthembu now has the highest yields in the area.
The pilot project has been set up by the SA Sugar Association (SASA), an umbrella group covering both small and large commercial growers as well as millers.
Rainfall data from an existing weather station in Pongola is sent to a powerful computer system at SASA?s Mount Edgecombe headquarters outside Durban, which models how much more water the crops need. Mthembu then gets a simple automatic text message in Zulu telling him whether to irrigate or not.
"The computer programme itself is not a new concept," said SASA researcher Abraham Singles. "But we think this is the first time we have been able to give farm specific advice. A lot of these guys have only had cellphones for the last couple of years."
Cellphone ownership across Africa has leapt some 1,000 percent in the past five years to some 8 percent of the population. Pilot projects in SA and Rwanda use them to give poor farmers access to pricing information to help them get the best price for their crops.
Helping emerging black farmers is seen as key to the development of South African agriculture. The government wants 30 percent of commercial farmland in black hands by 2014 and is on the lookout for ways to help new farmers boost outputs.
The SA sugar industry says it hopes to expand the Pongola pilot ? which currently reaches only 25 small farms -- to include more both small and large commercial growers. It might also be expanded to other crops such as maize, fruit or cotton.
"I think this must take off ? it?s so simple," SASA chairman and commercial sugar farmer Rodger Stewart told Reuterers. "It saves water, it saves costs. A lot of commercial farmers have their own programmes on their computers to do this, but here the model is much more sophisticated."