Sustainable Agriculture: 4 examples of Frugal Innovation


The agricultural sector is facing multiple and unprecedented challenges. Some of the problems that need to be addressed most urgently are the adverse effects of climate change, the consequences of environmentally damaging production practices such as the heavy use of chemicals and large amounts of water, and the overexploitation and impoverishment of land. Our latest social challenges are related to innovations for sustainable agriculture.

Producing food in the same way as it has been done so far, using intensive farming techniques, chemical inputs and mechanization, has increased  food availability and lowered the global poverty rate. 

However, the current production system needs to be more sustainable. Agriculture must meet the needs of both present and future generations while ensuring profitability, environmental health, and social and economic equity. The practice of agriculture more related to sustainability must address the reduction of rural poverty, nutrition for the entire population, care for the environment and the fight against climate change, as promoted by the FAO.

That is why, in recent years, the idea of environmentally friendly agriculture has gained great importance and is already starting to be implemented in vulnerable communities or developing countries that need agriculture to survive. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) defines sustainable agriculture as agriculture that ensures global food security while promoting healthy ecosystems and supporting the sustainable management of land, water, and natural resources.

4 examples of frugal innovation for sustainable agriculture

Frugal innovation can be defined as a product design methodology based on maximum efficiency of product performance, using the least amount of resources, and de-emphasising other features such as appearance or image. It is based on three basic principles: simplification, utilization and accessibility.

Sustainable agriculture, through frugal innovations, aims to:

  • Reduce and even eliminate the use of chemicals.
  • To make land previously damaged by fertilizers and pesticides capable of regenerating itself.
  • Be able to transform organic waste and residues into fertilizer or compost for crops
  • eliminate weeds that are harmful to crops
  • Addressing water shortages and ensuring water sanitation

Bicycle-trailers for sustainable agriculture in Mozambique

Ayuda en Acción has developed a series of bicycle hoes and bicycle sprayers that enable farmers in Mozambique to reduce the time it takes to clear their land.

Bicycle hoe. Image by Ayuda en Acción.

In Cabo Delgado, one of the poorest provinces in Mozambique, the main problem faced by farmers is weeds. They waste a lot of time and opportunities removing weeds in a rudimentary way, with small hoes, knives, or even by hand. In fact, about half of their annual labor time is spent on this task. 

These unwanted plants that grow unchecked threaten their crops: they compete for water, reduce the yield of other plants, and hinder the harvest. These new bicycles, which are suitable for all crops and soil types, can serve as a solution for other regions.

Bicycle sprayer. Image by Ayuda en Acción.

Accelerating cocoa bean fermentation in Ecuador

In Shushufindi, in the province of Sucumbíos (Ecuador), an innovation is being applied to the cocoa fermentation process that aims to accelerate it and achieve higher quality beans.

Attempts are being made to reuse the leachates (liquids formed by passing through a solid) left over from the cocoa fermentation process to produce a material for inoculation.

This accelerates and completes the fermentation process of the bean, thus achieving a better quality with significant improvements in flavor and aroma, characteristic of fine cocoa beans.

Cocoa beans agricultor.

This innovation in the cocoa bean fermentation process uses the leachates generated in the collection center, which contain microorganisms naturally present in the beans, such as yeasts, lactic and acetic acid bacteria, responsible for the biochemical and microbiological reactions, and which lead to optimum fermentation of the beans and, consequently, the quality of the cocoa.

This innovation is in the testing stage, and for the time being funding is being sought for scaling up. This technological alternative is better than isolating the microbial strains involved in fermentation, due to the difficulty and high cost of industrial biotechnology research. 

Accelerated drying of composting waste in Ecuador

Organic waste can be used as compost and fertilizer for agricultural soils after a drying process to kill all pathogenic microorganisms. However, there is a drawback: it takes about six months for this process to be completed.

Traditional drying process.

In the region of Puyo (Ecuador), a new innovation is being implemented based on the use of solar ovens to accelerate this process, as temperatures high enough to kill all pathogens can be reached quickly and efficiently.

These solar dryers have been constructed using:

  • Open, flat pieces of disposable PET plastic bottles to form the roof.
  • Disposable tetra brik cartons sewn together to form a curved sheet that focuses and concentrates sunlight, like a solar reflector.

In its function as a dryer, the bottle roof is highly efficient, as there are many spaces for the humid air to escape, without allowing rain to enter.

This system is being applied in isolated rural communities, mainly in the Amazon, with poor socio-economic conditions that make them very vulnerable, and where resources are very scarce.

Billboard providing clean drinking water in Peru

This case is more for drinking water although this idea could be used to create an innovation that allows its use in small gardens with drip irrigation.

The Lima University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) has turned a simple billboard into a drinking water tap. The water is obtained through a system with a series of mechanisms inside the billboard, which includes:

  • Air filter that captures the moist in the air.
  • Water condenser
  • Carbon filter for the water

Once condensed and filtered, the water passes to the bottom of the billboard, in the form of drinking water that is distributed through a tap. It can produce up to 96 liters per day.

Billboard designed by UTEC.

This has been a real revolution for all communities where water is hard to come by due to regular droughts. The Peruvian capital has about 98% humidity, so it is a perfect place to get water from the air and have it purified. Obviously, increasing the installation of these billboards will solve the water problem in some areas of the planet. 

What do you think about the future of agriculture? Could these innovations help to make agriculture more sustainable?

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