Overview Objectives

“The program is about managing overuse of the world’s water resources and adapting and mitigating climate change effects for family farmers in developing countries”. 2017 Research Program Manager: Dr Evan Christen

This project will create a monitoring and social learning system to improve agricultural irrigation water productivity in Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania.
The Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) combines new irrigation monitoring tools with an on-line communication and learning system. The VIA :
Captures physical data from irrigation schemes in real time, so that project and country leaders can understand the situation and mentor extension workers and farmers.
Captures dialogue between farmers, extension workers and scientists to analyse how learning occurs.
Includes training resources: videos on equipment installation and maintenance, data interpretation; it shares success stories with other farmers in the project countries.
The monitoring tools have been designed to fit farmers’ mental model and to give an output that is linked to action. Colours illustrate information on soil water suction, nitrate concentration and salinity levels. These colours represent action thresholds, and not numbers with complicated units.
Each country will form “learning coalitions” comprising farmers, extension workers, a district irrigation officer, and research and project staff. Each coalition will be located around an irrigation scheme, and will build their own case studies based on experiential learning. The learning coalition will expand to neighbouring irrigation communities, using the VIA as the major resource.
A sister project, LWR/2016/137: Transforming irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems in southern Africa, combines the tools and VIA with agricultural innovation platforms to overcome market and water supply problems in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Progress Reports (Year 1, 2, 3 etc)

The project is grounded on social learning with respect to improving agricultural irrigation water productivity in Malawi and Tanzania through the use of an innovative monitoring and learning system. Being a new approach of promoting profitable irrigation in the selected countries, the project start-up activities have taken a longer period than initially anticipated. The activities undertaken to-date that form a foundation of project implementation include;
(a) Project inception and training - under this activity, the project was officially launched in Morogoro -Tanzania in June 2015 and key trainings conducted on the use of the innovative monitoring equipment notably the Chameleon and Wetting Front Detector. Other areas of training that the project has covered include; financial management and reporting, real time data collection and processing, the operational aspects of the Virtual Irrigation Academy and key elements of social learning.,

(b) Baseline data collection - the baseline data collection is underway and it aims at monitoring the performance tracking of the project. Key aspects that the baseline report will capture include; income levels of the target arming communities, production systems, existing of learning platforms, availability of markets for irrigated crops and social networks,

(c) Design of VIA - the Virtual Irrigation Academy that is aimed at facilitating social learning across participating partners and institutions has been designed and is being tested,

(d) Improvement of monitoring tools - the prototype Chameleon is continuously being improved with the aim of bringing down the cost of production and the price at the farmer level as well as improving its utility - being more user-friendly.

The Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) project theory of change (ToC) is to explore a social learning approach for improving irrigation water productivity in Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa. The VIA uses an on-line monitoring and learning system to improve the profitability of irrigation farming by better water, salt and fertilizer management. The project is achieving this by (1) refining and deploying farmer-friendly monitoring tools that measure soil water, nutrients, salt and depth to water table; (2) developing a “Virtual Irrigation Academy” (VIA) through on-line visualization of data from the monitoring tools linked to a virtual discussion, learning and teaching space; (3) determining how the VIA promotes the social and institutional learning that improves irrigated farm productivity and (4) by developing partnerships for the post project continuation of the VIA and monitoring tools.
Although the project had a relatively slow start in 2015, largely due to the fact that VIA is a very new approach, the project activities have been fast-tracked in the current reporting period (2016-2017). Below is a summary of the activities and achievements recorded in Malawi and Tanzania.

1) The VIA-Malawi is being implemented at Kasinthula Cane Growers Ltd (Chikwawa), Bwanje Irrigation Scheme (Dedza) and Nanzolo Irrigation Scheme (Chikwawa). The VIA-Tanzania is being implemented in three irrigation schemes namely Chinangali (in Chamwino District), Kiwere (in Iringa District), and Msolwa (in Kilombero District).
2) In the reporting period, each of the two countries completed their individual baseline studies for the above schemes (Annex 1 and 2), and ASARECA undertook a meta-analysis of the two reports to generate a regional baseline status report for the two countries (Annex 3). Key aspects that the baseline reports captured include; income levels of the target communities, production systems, existence of learning platforms, availability of markets for irrigated crops and social networks. The countries have also completed the biophysical characterization of the action sites (Annex 4). The countries are also at an advanced stage in the characterization (social and biophysical) of the new schemes where the VIA will be expanded and this will be covered in the next reporting period (2017-2018).
3) In Malawi, a total of 60 farmers and 6 lead farmers were selected and trained in the use of VIA tools. Three “learning coalitions” have been formed at each of the three schemes consisting of the selected farmers, extension workers, a district irrigation officer and research and project staff. The simplicity of the soil moisture monitoring tools is promoting inclusiveness across the gender categories especially the women who often have low levels of literacy. Both farmers and extension workers within the target irrigation schemes are now well acquainted with the use of these tools through trainings, which were conducted at these two different levels.
4) Three data collectors were recruited and 3 motorbikes were bought for the Data collectors plus 1 laptop, 1 desktop and 1 internet router for report writing, data uploading and processing
5) Field days were captured using a video camera and a documentary has been produced which is being broadcast on Malawi Broadcasting Cooperation Television (MBC-TV).
6) In Tanzania, new versions of the monitoring tools (Chameleon readers with Wi-Fi connectivity and sensor arrays with ID chips) have been introduced, installed in the three project sites and used by the farmers to monitor soil moisture and nutrients. Training of data collectors, district staff and lead farmers on the use of the tools continued during the reporting period.
7) New schemes (3 in each country) were identified for scaling up, particularly those experiencing water stress. Potential new farmers at such sites have been attracted by the early reports of VIA benefits. To cover the extra work load of the additional schemes, new approaches for data collection are being explored, including the use of the private sector.
8) Scheme meetings were held in the two countries as entry activities for identifying partners for out scaling and for ratifying the platform constitution, reviewing progress of research activities, endorsing changes of committee members to enhance competence and mitigate running costs; and drafting a work plan. During the next reporting period innovation platform committee members will be trained on group dynamics, leadership and management. In addition, there is a strong drive to strengthen partnerships with local administration authorities in all the project areas so as to leverage key support for the planned expansion. Strategic meetings and engagement of the concerned officials in field activities is on-going. Existing partnerships are being strengthened for the out-scaling initiative.
9) Farmers have reported a reduction in conflicts because of the need to share water.
10) After the project team created awareness and neighboring farmers saw the increased yields and incomes of farmers participating in the VIA project, many other farmers are now also requesting VIA tools.

A variation of the project was successfully completed in early 2017 to bring in South Africa as a third partner. Specifically the role of the South African partner, the University of Pretoria, was to build a research and training hub and pioneer scale up of the Chameleon sensors. Progress includes:

1) The VIA-South Africa was launched at the University of Pretoria on 8 March 2017. A workshop was held on 9 and 10 March 2017 with participants from the partner countries of Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa sharing their experiences.
2) Three Masters students have begun their research into the biophysical aspects of the VIA at the university’s experimental farm at Hatfield. One of the three Masters students who will work on the social aspects of the VIA has also begun her studies. The project team is in the process of identifying two additional social science students from Malawi and Tanzania to work on the project. Plans are already underway to make use of the Sensemaker tool to capture farmer experiences and social leaning.
3) Small-scale barley and sugarcane farmers on two irrigation schemes have been selected and trained in the use of the monitoring tools. Several commercial potato growers in four provinces have also been trained. Five small scale citrus farms in Limpopo and Northwest Provinces have been selected for installing of equipment.
4) A demonstration and training hub is being established at the University experimental farm. Monitoring tools have been installed in the pecan and citrus orchards.
5) Private sector linkages have been established.
a. Key partners in the implementation of the project activities identified are: SAB Miller (Anheuser Bush In Bev), TsGro and Citrus Citrus Grower Association and their Development company (Grower Development)
b. Discussions have begun with Rural Integrated Engineering (RIENG), a private company, to develop a business model for the production and distribution of the Chameleon in Africa.

Project ID
Project Country
Inactive project countries
Commissioned Organisation
CSIRO Land and Water, Australia
Project Leader
Dr Richard Stirzaker
02 6246 5570
Collaborating Institutions
Department of Agricultural Research Services, Malawi
Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa, Malawi
University of Pretoria, South Africa
Solutech, Australia
Project Budget
Start Date
Finish Date
ACIAR Research Program Manager
Dr Evan Christen