the innovate
irrigation challenge


recognising the

need to take

further action


We can’t fight water scarcity alone:
this affects us all

Water is essential, agri-food businesses such as our own, understand the important role of this vital resource and we are determined to use it appropriately. From growing the sugar beet and cane in fields, through to operational processes at our factories, water is essential.

Whilst we have come some way in reducing the use of this resource, there is always more we can do to reduce our environmental footprint, which is why we launched 'The Innovate Irrigation Challenge' to draw on ideas from across the globe. The question we posed with this Challenge was:

“How do you stop irrigation water losses (evaporation/leaks, etc.) in agriculture?”

We are delighted with the level of interest in the Challenge; receiving over 90 registrations and a further 28 submissions from individuals and teams across the world.


we strive to be responsible stewards and users of all natural resources

the winning idea

proof of concept

our partners

your judges

the winning idea

The idea unanimously chosen to be the winner by our expert panel of judges was submitted by two graduate engineers from Uganda.

Their idea focused on a smart irrigation system that would account for water used in irrigation, detect water losses in the system, plan irrigation schedules, monitor growth of crops and determines the irrigation water requirement of the crop during different growth stages. It could be connected into current processes, managed from afar and integrated with new technologies available in remote locations; allowing estate managers and small holder farmers to understand, analyse and act on the information provided through the acquired data.

what stood out to the judges

What stood out to our prestigious judges was that the idea also prioritised the need for all parties to continually adapt behaviour in terms of safeguarding and ensuring efficient use of water as a resource. The idea considered the training needed for farmers and estate officers to build up capability of using the systems and stood out for its scalable qualities, it was considerate of the difficulties and context of working in remote rural locations and could help to build a strong foundation for the future.

what happened next?

After sharing the exciting news with the winning duo, the idea was translated into a proof of concept to consider the potential impact across all our international operations.

Following completion of this in 2020 at Illovo Sugar Malawi’s Nchalo Estate, a further pilot will run across 742 hectares at Nchalo in 2022.

proof of concept

The winning idea demonstrates you can turn a domestic solution into a wider industrial and agricultural context that has impact.

The aim of the proof of concept study was to consider the potential of a smart irrigation system and its impact on reducing water losses, how scalable and easy it is to implement anywhere, and whether it can deliver a return on investment. 

The main areas the study focused on were adjustable flow meters being installed at water abstraction points, distribution lines and supply lines to the crop. Remote sensing via satellite to detect water losses and send alerts, as well as having visibility of water use for auditing and review purposes; all at your fingertips with the creation of a Smart Water Management Tool. The tool was created to help collect the data from the remote sensing, measure and reduce water consumption, as well as improve the crop yield through scheduling the application of water at the right times.

These areas and the creation of the tool enabled us to bring together technology to equip our teams with data in one place to help inform decision-making in real time, as well as building capability within teams and small-holder farmers to understand, analyse and act on the information provided.

The proof of concept was completed at Illovo Sugar Malawi’s Nchalo Estate in 2020 producing promising results. The system functioned well and the web-based reporting platform was intuitive to use. In terms of performance, early indications were that it could save up to 9% of water currently lost through unidentified leaks and reduce power consumption by 11%. The concept will be developed further with a pilot across 742 hectares at Nchalo due for 2022. This will test the concept at scale and enable us assess how it might dovetail other innovations, including drip irrigation.

Proof of concept

our partners

We partnered with third party experts, WaterAid and the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the University of Cambridge, who played an integral role in selecting the winning idea.

meet our judges

Our panel of judges represent a diverse range of experience and knowledge across different industry sectors and geographies, as well as delivering complex projects.

Virginia Newton-LewisIan BamfordPaul FishpoolBruce LankfordSteve EvansJim McClelland MAMatthew TrinderDarran Boote

Virginia Newton-Lewis

Senior Policy Analyst, Water Security at WaterAid

Virginia Newton-Lewis is the Senior Policy Analyst for Water Security in WaterAid’s Global Policy Team. Prior to joining WaterAid Virginia was a Water Policy Analyst at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations working on food security, irrigation modernisation and water resources.

Virginia has also worked on flood risk management, sewerage, and the environmental accounting of water resources. She holds a PhD from the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management from the University of Oxford and an MSci in Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge.

Ian Bamford

Commercial Director in Centre for Industrial Sustainability at University of Cambridge

Ian has over 35 years of industry experience and has worked at a senior level in multinational companies such as Dell, Philips and Groupe Bull, as well as setting up and running small and mid-sized technology and consulting businesses in the USA and the UK. At Cambridge University, he was a Founding Director of the Centre for Industrial Sustainability and is instrumental in ensuring that leading edge research created can be effectively deployed to transform business performance to meet the sustainable needs of the future.

Paul Fishpool

Commercial Agriculture Manager, ABF Sugar

Paul is an experienced agriculture manager with over 20 years’ experience in the sugar industry; and has spent his professional career working alongside and in support of sugar beet farmers. He has held a variety of roles from crop production, to agriculture operations and logistics management; and has worked in factories across the UK and in China. He has spent time studying how to maximise efficiency of the UK sugar beet supply chain and is a Nuffield Farming Scholar.

Bruce Lankford

Professor of Water and Irrigation Policy, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK

Bruce has over 35 years’ academic, practical and consultancy experience in agriculture, irrigation and water management, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa. He is a co-founder of the UEA Water Security Research Centre, and during his career has also worked for two major organisations – the Commonwealth Development Corporation and Hunting Technical Services Ltd (now DAI). His interests cover irrigation management; large-scale irrigation systems; the use of role-playing games in resource management; resource use efficiency; river basin management; and water allocation.

Steve Evans

Director of Research in Industrial Strategy at University of Cambridge

Steve has over 20 years of academic experience which includes working with leading industrial and academic institutions from around the globe and supervising over 120 PhD and MSc students at Cranfield University. His research seeks a deep understanding of how industry develop solutions that move us towards a sustainable future. He has led or co-led the first UK Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) projects in the fields of Concurrent Engineering, Co-development and Eco-design and is the Director of the new EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability; as well as the Director of the Centre of Industrial Sustainability at the IfM.

Jim McClelland MA

Sustainable Futurist & Founder of SustMeme

Jim is a sustainable futurist with extensive experience in media and events and is ranked among Top three media influencers in Sustainability worldwide. As a journalist and media commentator, he has had work featured in supplements for The Times and Sunday Times newspapers, specialising in sustainability matters and writing on topics ranging from ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Business Risk’ to ‘Food & Agriculture’ plus the ‘Future of Water’. Also, the founder of the SustMeme publishing house and media brand, he has created content for the likes of Guardian Sustainable Business, Business Reporter (The Daily Telegraph), and many more titles as well as high street retailers and global clothing brands, utilities and real estate firms.

Matthew Trinder

Group Transport Excellence Manager, Illovo Sugar Africa

Matthew is an experienced logistics manager with over 12 years’ experience in the FMCG industry; and has spent his professional career working with multiple FMCG businesses to deliver world class customer service in a cost-effective manner. He has held a variety of roles from Route to Consumer specialist, market expansion and logistics management; and has worked in businesses across South Africa, Africa and the UK. He has spent time studying how the logistics supply chain can aid the sales offering to end customer so that it delivers competitive advantage and he is a Millennial Board Member of the Illovo Sugar Africa group. Personally, and professionally, he is passionate about sustainability and has worked on a number of sustainable development initiatives to lower the carbon footprint of industry and households.

Darran Boote

Group Agricultural Engineer, Illovo Sugar Africa

Darran has nearly 10 years’ experience within the African sugar cane industry in a range of agricultural engineering and research roles. His professional career started at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) focusing on energy use and carbon footprint of sugar cane production systems. During this time, he completed an MSc (Eng) in agricultural energy use. Other roles have included working for a consulting company specialising in sugar cane estate planning and design, as well as irrigation and pump station design. Since joining Illovo Sugar Africa, Darran’s focus is providing technical support to the Irrigation Services Team across all sites.

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