Big Idea: Reduce barrier of adoption for increased-efficiency fertilizer method
Project Launched: March 2011
Team: Annika Berman, Taylor Cone, Will Harte, Chuen-Hong Lew, Christian Perez
Nearly 10 million Cambodians are small-scale subsistence rice farmers who depend on their rice crop for survival, but they also experience the lowest rice yields in the region due to poor nutrient levels in Cambodian soil. Their attempt at combating this is to spread granulated fertilizer on their rice paddies; unfortunately, this method results in a loss of 40-70% of the inputs while also polluting local waterways and air quality. Our partner, International Development Enterprises (IDE), challenged us to help Cambodia’s subsistence rice farmers increase yields through fertilizer efficiency.
Cambodian farmers are not alone in this challenge. Almost 2.5 billion people depend on rice as their staple food, and more than 100 million households in Asia and Africa are primarily dependent or rice cultivation for their incomes.*
A partial solution exists: a Fertilizer Deep Placement (FDP) pellet that is buried in the muddy soil allows nutrients to be released directly to the plant roots over time without leaching into the surface water. Studies have shown that the use of FDP pellets can increase yields by 20-60% over broadcast application of granulated fertilizer and reduce runoff by 30-60%.**
Unfortunately, the only way to apply the pellet is by hand, requiring 8 days of backbreaking manual labor per hectare per crop cycle. Because of the burden required to apply pellets properly, this “silver bullet” has not been widely adopted.
During the first need finding excursion to Cambodia in March 2011, the RiceRunner team recognized that the main barrier to proper FDP application, and hence increased rice yields, is the time-consuming and backbreaking labor required to place the pellets manually. The team realized that a reliable, low-cost, time-saving mechanical pellet applicator could help drive adoption of the increased efficiency fertilizer pellets.
The team identified four key design criteria that will determine the success of an applicator: accurate pellet placement, covering of the pellets in the mud, and ease and speed of use. The first field-testable version of the RiceRunner resembles a seeder on skis, and the team has built and explored many iterations of this basic design.
What’s Happening Now?
Excited about the potential impact of the RiceRunner, the team decided to continue the project when the course ended in June 2011. After receiving funding for the summer, they added a new team member and worked to refine the prototype for their month-long field testing trip to Cambodia and Vietnam that concluded in September.
The tests demonstrated definite areas for improvement before the applicator will perform reliably in the formidable rice field environment. However, the team was reassured there is high demand for a fertilizer pellet applicator and discovered promising new avenues for future development. The team is also encouraged by the creation of strong working relationships between more partners in Cambodia who are excited about the prospect of an FDP pellet applicator.
The team has completely turned over their product innovation to IDE|C as of July 2012.