Sugarcane is one of the most economically important commodity crops in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Whilst the health effects of sugar consumption are under debate and there is uncertainty about its future as a biofuel feedstock, supporting and expanding sugarcane production is an economically important element in many SSA countries. In the context of the agricultural transformation agenda for SSA, a number of emergent water-related risks need to be addressed. These include (i) understanding the impacts of future climate variability and drought risk, (ii) understanding the impacts of climate change on agronomic practices and yield, (iii) identifying technology and management options to improve catchment efficiencies, and (iv) evaluating the potential for precision irrigation technologies to improve yields.

Project aims

This PhD study's aims are:

  • To evaluate current irrigation management practices, including water resources and abstraction management and development of irrigation benchmarking to assess performance across the different cane businesses in Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland.
  • To assess the feasibility of implementing precision irrigation technology, including wireless soil moisture sensing, variable rate irrigation and remote sensing technologies to improve crop and water management.
  • To evaluate the agronomic and environmental impacts of precision irrigation on cane yield and water use using biophysical crop modelling; and to assess the relative costs and benefits of precision irrigation implementation for sugarcane.


The project outcomes will provide substantive new evidence for Illovo to support strategic investments and improvements in irrigation water management across all their estates in SSA. The research will provide new insights on precision irrigation management for sugarcane. It will also result in new methodologies and evidence to support ongoing debates regarding the water-energy food nexus in SSA and farming system approaches relevant to sustainable intensification.

Finally, the research will also develop synergies with ongoing research on water in the Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility (CRIDF) and will have direct links with projects currently being developed by the Cane Centre of Excellence (CCoE) based in Swaziland.

Download first year progress report