Nathan Zecks Mazvazva, a 25-year-old farmer in Zimbabwe, stands in his sugarcane field, marveling at a recent savings of 60% on irrigation costs.

And sugarcane is just part of Mazvazva’s property in Zimbabwe. He owns nearly 500 acres, growing green beans to green peppers. Simply put, technology—more specifically, drones—is making his livelihood more cost efficient.

“Annual costs on traditional irrigation amount to $40,000 and 100,000 liters of water to irrigate one acre of sugarcane,” says Mazvazva. “With drone irrigation, we have cut costs to $24,000.”

A traditional irrigation system for such acreage normally requires piping and sprinklers. But drones remove those needs, transporting water from a nearby dam directly to Mazvazva’s crops.

Additionally, drone irrigation causes less water spillage. In fact, targeted crop watering is especially helpful when seasonal droughts reduce water sources.

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Over the past decade, weather patterns in some parts of the world have become increasingly unfriendly to farmers. Abnormal dry spells are more frequent, especially in Mazvazva’s region.

The World Food Program and United Nations cite troubling numbers concerning droughts. It is said such dry spells cause 45 million people in Southern Africa to face food shortages. The hardest hit countries include Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

“Boreholes were expensive and unreliable…ordering water was expensive,” says Mazvazva. “With less rain, draining our reservoir was not a feasible option, so we had to improvise.”

Mazvazva first heard about drone irrigation technology late last year, from a local tech startup called Iris Water. Soon after, he purchased two drones for him farms.

“Each drone can carry 15 liters of water and pesticides. Efficient spraying can cover 37 acres in 30 minutes, thanks to accurate distribution of liquid,” says Mazvazva. “With traditional irrigation, most water goes into the top soil, seeping down to the underlying bedrock.”

Eddie Dube, also in his 20s, is a farmer in Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest city, Mutare; he owns almost 25 acres. Struggling with traditional irrigation, Dube rented drones last fall, also from Iris Water, for his tobacco, maize and cabbage. As a result, he saved money, reduced spillage and experienced a crop-yield bump of 87%.

Nyasha Hambira, Iris Water’s founder and CEO says  his company’s agricultural 15-liter drone costs $4,000, including tax, and that spares, warranty, batteries and software are provided. The company also produces a drone with 10-liter capacity for $3,500.

Most farmers in Zimbabwe are communal, not commercial. That means drone irrigation can represent an expensive proposition for such group farms.

Beyond the financials, a key challenge of using drones in Zimbabwe is strict regulations due to security concerns. For instance, in 2016, the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) crafted 31 pages of legislation, titled “Regulations for Remotely Piloted Aircraft” (RPA) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (UAVS).”

Such tougher regulations require a remote pilot license to fly drones, regardless of their purpose, along with many more requirements. However, Zimbabwe’s deputy agriculture minister, Vangelis Haritatos, did not respond to Zenger queries about the reasons for the regulations.

While the use of drones is limited by security and privacy concerns from regional governments, the Food and Agriculture Organization and International Telecommunication Union are promoting them, especially amid climate change. In 2018, the two produced reports on crop production; both organizations found drones ideal for what is termed “precision agriculture.”

“In supporting precision farming, drones can do soil health scans, monitor crop health, assist in planning irrigation schedules, apply fertilizers, estimate yield data and provide valuable data for weather analysis,” reads a section of the report. “Data collected through drones, combined with other data sources and analytic solutions, provide actionable information.”

Farmers are facing increasing challenges in their efforts fighting world hunger. The FAO and ITU conclude that drones are a helpful alternative solution for farmers. Now, farmers in such areas as Zimbabwe say, governments need to recognize this and do what they can to support the hands that feed them.

(Edited by Blake French and Matthew Hall.)

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