Mahinda Athuman – Agricultural Engineering

Mahinda Athuman – Agricultural Engineering

Summary: Mahinda Athuman is an iAGRI-sponsored scholar completing his master’s research at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Africa.  Mahinda conducts his research at the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture’s ARI Makutupora Research Institute located north of Dodoma, in the central region of Tanzania.  There, Mahinda investigates the viability of simple drip irrigation systems for improving yields of sorghum harvests.  Climate change is suspected to be a significant factor in shifting rainfall patterns in central Tanzania, making sorghum and other crops that can grow in semi-arid environments, vulnerable lower yields.  By determining the exact amount of water that such crops need to produce at their maximum potential, Mahinda hopes that he’ll demonstrate that drip irrigation can be a solution to enhance water conservation and farmers will know exactly how much water to apply for the crop to reach its full potential.  Mahinda expects to complete his master’s degree in 2014.

Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.


 

Combating Climate Change One Drop at a Time: Drip irrigation as a solution to drought mitigation in central Tanzania

As one travels the nearly 300-kilometer stretch of blacktop northwest from the Morogoro to Dodoma in central Tanzania, it’s impossible not to notice the extent to which the agricultural landscape changes. While it’s not entirely fair to compare the central region to a desert, for fields of sunflower and maize are testament to there being some agricultural productivity, portions of it can appear very dry and desolate. The scrub brush can be sparse and appears stunted relative to that in the comparatively lush and fertile south. A hot, dry and dusty wind seems ever present. Agricultural margins can be tight and the reliability of the 22 inches of average annual rainfall, the majority of which comes in the rainy season, greatly dictate farmers’ fortunes. It’s in this environment, at the Tanzania Ministry of Agriculture’s ARI Makutupora Research Institute, that Mahinda Athuman, an iAGRI-sponsored scholar at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, has successfully used drip irrigation to create an oasis of thick, green and healthy sorghum.

By all appearances, Mahinda is a very serious young man. Only when he greets or converses with someone does a wide and friendly smile belie his otherwise stone sober demeanor. His office at the research institute is a nondescript concrete building, its interior spartan in its assortment of a few well-aged hardwood desks, some cabinets and a few colorful soil science posters taped to a wall as decoration. Its ambiance could be described as being well-matched with its occupant’s undistracted, single-minded focus and determination.

“For farmers the climate change issue is relevant,” stated Mahinda, just prior to marching out to his sorghum field. “Farmers will talk about the level of harvests they are having at this moment, the altered rainfall patterns, the rising temperatures and the increases in pest and disease instance, but particularly the change in rainfall.”

iAGRI-sponsored scholar Mahinda Athuman, a master's student at the University of Nairobi, with a soil moisture meter and a drip irrigation line in an experimental sorghum field at the Ministry of Agriculture's Ari Makutupora Research Institute near Dodoma, Tanzania, Africa.

iAGRI-sponsored scholar Mahinda Athuman, a master’s student at the University of Nairobi, with a soil moisture meter and a drip irrigation line in an experimental sorghum field at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Ari Makutupora Research Institute near Dodoma, Tanzania, Africa.

Mahinda ultimately hopes to make those shifting rainfall patterns less worrisome for central Tanzanian farmers. The goal of his master’s research is to demonstrate that the devastating effects of climate change on sorghum crop yield loss can be mitigated through the use of correctly applied drip irrigation.

Amidst his sorghum, Mahinda went straight to work preparing a variety of soil monitoring devices and drip lines that would water the crop. He used augers to plant tensiometer’s, which measure soil moisture and resemble exaggerated meat thermometers, such as those you’d find in a Thanksgiving turkey. He then mixed several handfuls of red earth in a bucket of water, making a silky smooth reddish liquid that would act as a sealant for the tensiometer’s shaft, so as to avoid air contamination. Next, he uncoiled the drip lines and carefully placed them against the stalks of sorghum where they emerged from the ground. Finally, he turned on the water and a steady drip trickled from his lines, visibly darkening soil as the water slowly saturated the ground.

With the watering commenced, Mahinda took his soil samples, one from the immediate surface layer and then another, deeper sample, accessed via a soil pit located a few yards from the sorghum. Mahinda carried out all of these steps with the unhurried, methodical discipline of a scientist determined to conduct precise research. Later He’d apply the same contemplative approach to his lab work, oven drying and then weighing bagged samples of sorghum in order to test the crop for water use efficiency.

A sign designates when to apply drip irrigation to an experimental sorghum research plot overseen by iAGRI-sponsored scholar Mahinda Athuman, in the central region of Tanzania, Africa.

A sign designates when to apply drip irrigation to an experimental sorghum research plot overseen by iAGRI-sponsored scholar Mahinda Athuman, in the central region of Tanzania, Africa.

Perhaps Mahinda’s calculated and efficient approach toward science and discovery stems from his upbringing within a military family.

“I remember my father asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” recalled Mahinda. “I said I wanted to be a soldier. Many of my relatives were soldiers and I wanted to be like them.”

Of equal influence, however, was Mahinda’s love for practicals, or tests of applied knowledge. In his immediate surroundings, nothing could be more applied or practical than agriculture.

Mahinda uses an auger to bore a hole in order to install a soil moisture meter at his sorghum research plot.

Mahinda uses an auger to bore a hole in order to install a soil moisture meter at his sorghum research plot.

“As a kid, I loved to do practicals,” said Mahinda. In agriculture, everything from to A-Z is full of practicals. In biology and chemistry it’s the same. I was interested in mixing chemicals and seeing what was going to happen. In biology, it was observing living things as they grew. Agriculture to me was just a combination of biology, chemistry and physics subjects. It was easy for me because in the society where I was growing up, people were practicing agriculture, so it became even more interesting.”

There would be no better agricultural experiment for Mahinda than at his own home, where from an early age he helped his mother farm maize, sorghum, beans, sunflowers and okra as a means of sustenance for him and his eight siblings.

“I had an interest in agriculture,” claimed Mahinda. “The idea of becoming a farmer was there. I helped my mother to farm, particularly on weekends and after school.”

Mahinda places a soil moisture meter, also known as a tensiometer.

Mahinda places a soil moisture meter, also known as a tensiometer.

In time, Mahinda’s help in the garden evolved into an academic focus on agriculture, one he has pursued with a militaristic diligence ever since. He earned his bachelor’s in soil science and agronomy from Sokoine University of Agriculture, where he found courses on climate change and its effects on agricultural production to be particularly engaging.

“I started understanding concepts of what climate change is, what its impact is and who is mostly impacted by its negative consequences,” said Mahinda. That interest instilled within him a desire to pursue the subject further, so he went straight into a master’s degree program at Sokoine with a plan to conduct further research into climate change and agriculture as it affects Tanzania.

Soon into Mahinda’s master’s degree pursuit, however, he had to quit due to a lack of funds for his education. Forced to seek employment within the private sector, he took a job as an agronomist for the Morogoro-based Tanzanian Grain Company.

Mahinda mixes rust-colored red soil found in central Tanzania with water until it makes a thick liquid that can be poured into the shaft of the installed tensiometers.

Mahinda mixes rust-colored red soil found in central Tanzania with water until it makes a thick liquid that can be poured into the shaft of the installed tensiometers.

“I was an agronomist, said Mahinda, recalling his professional stint outside of academia. “I looked at a lot of things in the field from the soil to the post harvest of the crop. I enjoyed the job, but I thought that becoming an agricultural researcher or a lecturer at an agricultural college or research institution would be a better fit for me.”

With his suspended master’s still fresh on his mind but with no foreseeable means of funding it, Mahinda learned about iAGRI from an advertisement on Sokoine’s campus. After doing some research, iAGRI appeared to be the perfect means to restart his education.

“iAGRI looked like a good program that supported Tanzanians in advancing their agricultural training. It’s particularly helpful for those who are active and working in agriculture but who lack the finances to carry on with their academics.”

Mahinda placing the line near the base of a row of sorghum.

Mahinda placing the line near the base of a row of sorghum.

Fully confident of his ability to secure the scholarship, Mahinda applied.

“I knew one-hundred percent that if I apply for it, I could get it. I wasn’t nervous,” recalled Mahinda, whose confidence stemmed from the fact that he’d already begun a master’s degree and that his research interest fit with iAGRI’s focus on research that contributes to improving Tanzania’s agricultural production capacity and food security.

The only aspect of the iAGRI program that gave Mahinda reservations was its encouragement of studying abroad. Mahinda was so focused and eager to research climate change strictly within Tanzania that he wanted nothing more than to complete his master’s degree at Sokoine.

Mahinda hammers a cylinder into the ground so that he can take a soil sample that he will analyze back in the laboratory.

Mahinda hammers a cylinder into the ground so that he can take a soil sample that he will analyze back in the laboratory.

“At that point I was thinking only of staying at Sokoine and pursuing my master’s degree there,” claimed Mahinda. “The interviewer said, ‘Mahinda, you could go to any university in the world, why do you insist on staying in Tanzania?’ I said that this is my home, I’m from here and that I’d like to pursue my master’s in the area that will clearly be my working environment. I wanted to concentrate on the agricultural environment of Tanzania and find something of particular importance to work on here instead of going to some other country and finding the environments and technologies completely inappropriate for Tanzania.”

Ultimately, however, Mahinda agreed to study abroad at the University of Nairobi through a partnership between iAGRI and RUFORUM. His placement at a university that is located not far from Tanzania’s northern border allowed him to study in an agricultural environment similar to that of central Tanzania.

Upon arriving in Nairobi, Mahinda found that adjustment to a very different culture can be a difficult process.

Mahinda scrapes off the excess soil from his sample.

Mahinda scrapes off the excess soil from his sample.

“Kenyans are capitalists, but in Tanzania we have a socialist system,” said Mahinda. “So there are some cultural aspects that are different from ours. The eating habits are different, the way they interpret things are different than the way we interpret things. It was a big adjustment for me, but once I got accustomed to it everything was okay.”

Despite difficult adjustments, Mahinda now appreciates the value of experiencing a new culture and has incorporated some aspects of Kenyan culture into his approach to research.

“The Kenyans have a competitive spirit,” stated Mahinda in a tone of admiration. “They compete for everything and they make sure that everything they are planning has to happen. It is not just for the sake of doing things but also for the sake of seeing the results of what they were trying to do.”

An active drip irrigation line providing water to Mahinda's sorghum.

An active drip irrigation line providing water to Mahinda’s sorghum.

In addition to enhancing his competitive drive, Mahinda’s time in Nairobi helped him maintain intellectual independence throughout his research.

Recalling the role of Professor Charles Gachene, his academic advisor from Nairobi, Mahinda said that, “he left me to think on my own and come up with my own idea. He would say ‘Mahinda, this is your research, so we cannot put our own ideas into it, but we would like to advise you on what you want to do.’ That is what I appreciate the most. I don’t want someone to come up with their ideas and ignore my ideas.”

Mahinda received similar guidance back in Tanzania from his local supervisor from Sokoine University, Professor Method Kilasara.

In a laboratory, Mahinda bags harvested sorghum in order to place it in a drying oven.

In a laboratory, Mahinda bags harvested sorghum in order to place it in a drying oven.

“He lets students think critically about what they want to do and then adds as necessary,” said Mahinda, before adding, “they want the students to do it themselves, which I like.”

Back at his sorghum plot, drips of water continue to saturate the ground, providing the sorghum with its most critical nutrient, one drop at a time. After thorough testing, Mahinda should be able to determine the optimum amount of water for sorghum grown in central Tanzania. Then, farmers that adopt drip irrigation could maximize their water use efficiency while increasing the likelihood of enjoying consistently profitable harvests.

“The problem is that we don’t know exactly how much water needs to be supplied for the crop to produce at the potential yield level,” said Mahinda. “I’m determining the rates of sorghum growth and yields from different drip irrigation regimes as well as the water use efficiency of sorghum and the effects of drip irrigation on economic returns. For a crop to grow, it needs a constant supply of water. There is a certain amount of water necessary to achieve the full production potential of a crop. In semi-arid regions of Tanzania, you find that the rate of evaporation is very high, so you have to make sure that the amount of water you supply will meet the requirement for it to maximize its yield.”

Mahinda removes samples that have already been oven-dried and places them on a scale.

Mahinda removes samples that have already been oven-dried and places them on a scale.

In a region of Tanzania where water is often scarce, with supply made less reliable by climate change, widespread adoption of simple and affordable drip irrigation that improves water use efficiency would benefit not only the sorghum farmer, but the agricultural community as a whole. For a scientist like Mahinda, who is intently focused on getting results, there could be no outcome that would prove more satisfying.

“I want to continue doing research that will help farmers become food secure and enable them to generate income,” stated Mahinda. “If I get the funding to do research on farms, then farmers would see the research first hand, they would appreciate it and adopt this technology. That’s what I want from this experience, for farmers to benefit.”

So Mahinda pushes forward in his methodical and disciplined way, every step calculated and determined to find a solution to the greatest practical he’s ever faced.


If you would like additional information on Mahinda Athuman’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.

Select images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.