Making a bold statement, NaanDanJain chief agronomist Maoz Aviv says he believes his company will be able to solve some of the worst problems of world hunger.
“It’s hard to believe that a little sprinkler could do so much, but our new rice drip irrigation product really has the potential to vastly improve the lives of people in the developing world,” Aviv said.
One might be inclined to take such a claim with a grain of salt (or rice). But NaanDanJain – an Israeli-Indian firm, created in 2007 when Israeli irrigation tech firm NaanDan merged with India’s Jain Irrigation Systems – is one of the world leaders in drip-irrigation, filters, climate control systems, sprinkler systems for agriculture, and other hardware and control systems used in farms across India and the rest of Asia, as well as in North America, South America and Europe.
Speaking last week at Agritech 2015, a major agricultural technology event in Tel Aviv that drew some ten thousand visitors from Israel and abroad, Amnon Ofen, director of NaanDanJain, said that the company was “helping India bloom with our affordable drip irrigation, filter, and fertilizer technology. There is no question that our firm has been responsible for the green revolution in India. I would estimate that NaanDanJain products have helped increase India agricultural output by tens of percent. Millions of Indian farmers are using Israeli equipment and technology, and they are producing more from their land.”
If sales and revenue are any indication, NaanDanJain is a hit with farmers. The company had revenues of nearly a billion dollars in 2013-14, and is now the second biggest irrigation company in the world (behind another Israeli drip-irrigation firm, Netafim). But, said Aviv, the company’s new system for watering rice is very different – and perhaps far more important – than anything the company has tried before.
Rice is the staple crop in the Far East, where most of the world’s poor people live, and is the third biggest crop by yield in the world. It’s also an expensive crop to raise. Rice, according to the common wisdom, needs a lot of water.
But the common wisdom is wrong, said Aviv – and that is the basis of NaanDanJain’s new way of watering rice. “I, too, was under the impression that rice was a ‘thirsty’ crop, but as an agronomist, I conducted an in-depth study of the crop – and discovered that it is no more thirsty than wheat, corn, or any of the other commodity crops where drip-irrigation has successfully been used to save water.”
Currently, rice farmers use the traditional furrow-flooding method of watering their crops, where they dig ditches around rows of growing rice and let loose large amounts of water, which flow through the furrows and seep into the soil where the crop is growing.
That is exactly what wheat and corn farmers did before drip-irrigation, which aims water directly at seeds and plants – thus obviating the need for flooding and furrows, and saving up to 70% of the water needed. Actually, many of those farmers still use the furrow system or other irrigation techniques; currently only about 5% of the world’s farmers use drip-irrigation.
Rice farmers in rural China, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Asian countries don’t have that luxury, though – and it’s for them that the company developed the rice sprinkler, said Aviv. “We installed the systems in several test areas, and discovered that the rice did better with drip-irrigation than with traditional irrigation – it was stronger, bigger, and less prone to fungus attacks, which are usually caused by excessive moisture. Farmers were able to save 70% of the water they used, and got a 50% increase in output per hectare. We did a similar thing with bananas – between drip-irrigation and other technologies used by farmers, we were able to nearly quadruple the output of bananas in some places.”
With the system perfected, NaanDanJain has embarked on a sales campaign to convince rice farmers that drip-irrigation is a good idea for their farms. “Farmers, especially in the developing world, are set in their ways – if it was good enough for their fathers and grandfathers, it’s good enough for them. We are trying to educate them that this is not necessarily the case, and that with climate change and prices on the international commodity market squeezed by competition, they need to take new approaches to growing.”
If anything preventing farmers in developing countries from adopting drip-irrigation, it’s the initial up-front investment needed to install a system. NaanDanJain has a solution for that as well, said Aviv. “We lend farmers the money they need to install systems, and they pay back from profits they make on their crops. We’re sort of a micro-lender for these farmers, one of the few private companies in this region of the world that has a financing model like this.”
Withe the breakthroughs in water technology, the investments being made in water infrastructure by governments in the Far East, Africa, and South America, and by international groups like the UN, along with the financing models aimed at getting water-saving technology out of research labs and into farms, Aviv is very optimistic that the world can solve its hunger problems. “I know that statistics show that drip-irrigation is not widely used, but I can almost guarantee that within a decade the picture will be very different. The world has no choice but to go the water-saving route.”
Drip-irrigation was invented in Israel by Netafim – which Aviv does not see as a rival, but as a partner in the “good fight” both companies are waging to bringing Israeli water-saving technology to the world. “Israel has invented many things that have benefited the world, from computer and networking technology to mobile tech to medical innovations,” said Aviv. “That’s all great, but our innovations in water and agricultural technology are the real game changers. The Internet and mobile tech is good for now, but that’s eventually going to change. The water-saving technology we are inventing now will be in use hundreds of years from now.”