With AI drones and data, Tunisia’s startups battle water crisis

A man takes some drinkable water from a source in Sidi Bou Said, north of Tunis, on April 12, 2023. Tunisians are on the frontlines of a battle against an increasingly severe drought, now in its fifth year in the North African country, with the government issuing a sudden order to its population to ration their water usage for six months - or risk fines or jail. — AP

SMINJA, Tunisia: From soil sensors to AI-powered drones, entrepreneurs in Tunisia are equipping farmers with tech tools and data to help the vital agriculture sector weather the country's worsening water crisis.

The North African nation is enduring its fourth consecutive year of drought – as intensifying climate change affects rainfall in the region – threatening the agriculture industry that is critical for its food security and struggling economy.

With Tunisia’s dams drying up and poor crop harvests forecast, the government has started rationing public water supplies, hiked water prices for homes and businesses, and banned the use of potable water in agriculture until the end of September.

Tunisian startups are trying to alleviate the problem by providing farmers with tools and technologies to improve their agricultural methods and manage their crops with less water.

“We are experiencing a disaster as we are really running out of water resources,” said Yasser Bououd, co-founder of Ezzayra, a company that makes agricultural technology systems featuring smart irrigation devices, soil sensors and weather stations.

“We have to produce more with less resources, and technology is the only solution,” he added.

Founded in 2016, Ezzayra has 73 customers in Tunisia – with farms ranging from five hectares to 4,300 hectares in size – as well as a handful of clients overseas, according to Bououd.

Ezzayra’s system – which costs about US$1,500 for smallholder farmers and more for bigger farms – optimises fertilising, irrigating and cultivating, and includes a mobile app that provides data about crops and the weather.

One of its customers, Mahmoud Bouassida – a 47-year-old smallholder farmer in the northeastern town of Nabeul – said he had increased his crop yields by 30% and reduced water consumption by 20% since he started using the system in 2020.

“I can manage the whole farm through a mobile app,” said the farmer, who grows citrus with three others on a 20-hectare piece of land. “Everything here can be done in one click; irrigating, fertilising and even detecting any water pipe leaks,” he added.

Entrepreneurs say tech can not only help water-scarce farmers deal with drought but modernise and make their work more profitable in the long-term. But some analysts warn that such innovations should not distract from tackling the root cause of the problem.

“Technology will offer solutions but it will never be sufficient without other reforms,” said Adel Ben Youssef, an economics professor at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis in France and a former climate finance negotiator for Tunisia.

Ben Youssef said the Tunisian government should upgrade the country’s dilapidated water networks to avoid leaks and wastage, and make better use of waste water and rainwater to meet demand.

Depleted dams

Many of Tunisia’s 37 dams are depleted or empty due to years of drought, with total capacity having dropped to about one billion cubic meters – or 30% of the maximum – senior agriculture ministry official Hamadi Habib said last month.

This has acutely affected the agriculture sector, which accounts for about 80% of the country’s water consumption, according to statistics from the ministry.

For example, the senior farmers union has warned that the grain harvest will be “disastrous” – with the crop expected to decline by two-thirds this year to about 200,000-250,000 tonnes.

“The grain farmers will be in real distress this year because of the water shortages,” said Hajer Chabbah, vice-president of Tunisia Coop, an agricultural cooperative.

In a region where olive oil is produced outside of Sfax – Tunisia’s second city – Robocare, another startup, uses AI-powered drones equipped with spectral cameras to identify water wastage, and detect diseases in plants and trees.

“Reducing water wastage during irrigation seems urgent today, as farmers struggle with water shortages and climate change,” said Robocare’s co-founder Imen Hbiri. The startup currently has three Tunisian clients and one in Morocco.

Helping the wider population

Tech startups in Tunisia are not only thinking up solutions for water-scarce farmers but also looking to help the wider population as people feel the effects of the growing crisis.

State water distribution company SONEDE last month started cutting off water supplies to citizens from 9pm until 4am – a further blow to a public already struggling with food and fuel shortages and accelerating inflation, which is above 10%.

Tunisians per capita have access to 420 cubic metres of water a year, below the official “water poverty” level, according to the agriculture ministry.

This makes Tunisia a “very water scarce country”, United Nations Water has said.

To address the shortages, Kumulus Water, a “water tech” startup, has built a machine it says can produce up to 30 litres of drinking water a day using solar energy and the humidity in the air.

When air enters the device, it passes through a filter that removes pollutants and cools it to create condensation. The resulting water is then filtered to remove impurities and ensure it is safe to drink, said Kumulus co-founder Iheb Triki.

Triki said Kumulus has clients ranging from companies using the machines in their offices to a luxury hotel and a school.

Tunisia’s agriculture ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the country’s water shortages.

But Habib, the senior official, warned last month in a statement that if proper action was not taken there “will no drinking water this August in many Tunisian cities, including the capital Tunis”.

The World Bank has predicted Tunisia will face longer and more frequent and challenging droughts in the future as temperatures rise and rainfall levels decrease.

For entrepreneurs like Robocare’s Hbiri, tech is one way to fight back.

“We have to move faster with effective solutions to withstand an inevitable crisis,” she said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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