Inefficient irrigation methods waste huge amounts of water around the world, but up until now, transitioning to more efficient methods like drip irrigation has involved expensive pressure and filtration equipment and expenditures on energy. The Israeli company N-Drip is helping resolve this problem with a new kind of drip line that requires neither pressure nor filtration. N-Drip has invented a new kind of dripper that does not require pressure and a ring-profile drip line that is difficult to plug. This holds immense potential for converting fields that previously used flood or furrow irrigation to efficient drip irrigation.
In this interview, Professor Uri Shani, the chairman and chief technical officer of N-Drip, tells Irrigation Leader about N-Drip’s technology, the company’s activities in the United States, and its product’s potential to change the world.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Uri Shani: It’s a long story—I’m old! I served as a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, teaching physics and irrigation. Before that, I worked at the Arava Agricultural Research Station in the desert in southern Israel, the area where drip irrigation was started in the late 1960s and all the initial experiments on spacing, pressure, how to germinate, how frequently to irrigate, and how to add fertilizer were done. I joined in 1977 and started my PhD there. I was there for about 20 years, including my time doing a postdoc at Utah State University and sabbaticals in Riverside, California, and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. There is almost no rain in that part of southern Israel—three-quarters of an inch per year or less. It’s a real desert, and the water that is available there is brackish or even salty. At one point during my sabbatical in Stockholm, I found that the seawater of the Baltic Sea is fresher than the water we use for irrigation in the Arava area. Despite the fact that it is a Phoenix, Arizona–type climate with no rain and salty conditions, we had beautiful agriculture there thanks to drip irrigation. This is what started the push for drip irrigation around the world.
After leaving Arava, I was a university professor, and then was recruited to work for the government. In Israel, all water belongs to the state. I was water commissioner of Israel for 5 years. Over these 5 years, we made a revolutionary change from being a country where water is in constant shortage to being one that is independent of natural water supplies. Beforehand, there were discussions every winter about how much water would be available for agriculture, because in Israel water goes first to the cities and then to the farmers. We made the water sector more efficient by adding a lot of desalination and a lot of recycling. Today, Israel uses natural water, but we’re not dependent on natural water. One-half to two-thirds of the water we use today comes from either desalination or recycling. After my time in government, I started N-Drip and invented my own innovations, systems, and company.
Irrigation Leader: What problem was N-Drip founded to solve?
Uri Shani: Most people don’t know that about 70 percent of all water used worldwide is used for irrigation. The average efficiency of irrigation is somewhere between 25 and 30 percent. That means that most of the water that we use today is wasted by inefficient irrigation. It’s clear that if you are interested in solving the world’s water problems, you need to make irrigation more efficient. At the same time, however, more-efficient irrigation methods like drip are marginal, used on only 3.5–4 percent of irrigated land worldwide. Flood irrigation and furrow irrigation, which are used on 85 percent of all irrigated land, were invented by the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago and are still the main technologies. It’s unbelievable that the world is still being fed by a 5,000-year-old technology. A major reason for that is that governments— even in first-world countries like the United States and Australia—cannot raise water rates and water prices. That means that the use of the resource is inefficient. The result is that water has what we call a shadow price. Farmers can only use a limited amount of water, but they still don’t pay for it, and therefore, they don’t use it efficiently.
We have found that the main expenses of drip irrigation lie in the fact that it requires pressure, which is to say a pump house and electricity, and that the water needs to be filtered, which takes even more energy. We wanted to develop an irrigation method with the advantages of drip irrigation—accuracy, partial wetting, fertigation capability, high frequency—and the advantages of flood irrigation, namely, that it requires no energy and no filtration. We have developed a technology that takes water directly from the canal into laterals and sends it to the plant with no pressure and no filtration. The system requires only 2 feet of elevation for the entry head. We use same the natural slope that is used for furrow irrigation. Of course, this requires a new kind of dripper that we have invented. In addition to the fact that it does not require pressure, the system uses only half as much water as flood or furrow irrigation, meaning that it also reduces the cost and energy requirements of delivering water to the field. The system saves water, fertilizer, and energy.
Irrigation Leader: Why doesn’t your system require filtration? How do you avoid the drippers getting plugged?
Uri Shani: In normal drip irrigation, the water flows in a labyrinth or zigzag that breaks its energy and controls its discharge, ensuring that a fixed amount of water comes out of each dripper along the line. In a normal drip line, all the water flows along one path—a one-dimensional path, so to speak. That means that any colloid or substance can plug the line. Our line is different: Its cross-section looks like a ring. No one particle can block the flow because the water can bypass it. We call that three-dimensional flow. That means that it can function even with soiled water that is filled with particles. I would say the main limitation of our system is that, because we don’t use filtration, we ask farmers to replace their laterals every year. Many people are not used to doing that.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about N-Drip’s history.
Uri Shani: I started N-Drip 5 years ago. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a definite solution. I spoke with two friends who manage a private equity fund that was previously a shareholder in the drip irrigation company Netafim and therefore has experience with drip companies and drip systems. Together, they invested $1 million and got 50 percent ownership. That is how we started. By the time we held our first round of fundraising, about 2½ years later, we already had a working product to demonstrate. We produced a 200-meter-long drip line that was able to irrigate with a head elevation of only 50 centimeters (less than 2 feet). Today, that’s trivially easy, but the first time it worked, I had tears in my eyes. The first crop we irrigated using our system was sugarcane in Swaziland. We went there to stay under the radar. We used really dirty, muddy water, and it worked well. Later, we raised about $8 million, and now we are in the middle of a second round of fundraising.
In the last 2 years, we have built a plant where we produce the lines and drippers. We have also established daughter companies in Australia and the United States; we decided to start with those two big nations, which have a lot of needs related to water shortage. In the United States, we sell mostly in the South and Southwest, including Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas. There are already 2,000 acres in the United States being irrigated with our product, and we’ve had over $2 million in sales. We’re growing quickly.
Irrigation Leader: How many employees do you have?
Uri Shani: We will reach 40 soon, including workers in production, sales, and research and development.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have customers in Israel as well?
Uri Shani: No, Israel is the only place in the world where we do not expect to have customers, simply because there is zero flood irrigation. In Israel, water is precious; the country can’t afford to use flood irrigation. We carry out demonstrations and experiments in Israel, but we don’t have a market there.
Irrigation Leader: Where do you manufacture your product?
Uri Shani: We currently manufacture in Israel, but we have plans to manufacture the drippers closer to our markets. We’ll probably establish a plant in the United States, somewhere in the South, and perhaps one in Australia as well.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have sales in countries other than the United States and Australia?
Uri Shani: We’ve been encouraged by all kinds of organizations to expand to Africa, and we’d like to expand there because we think our product can make a real difference. At the same time, we cannot afford to build a distribution system there, so we need to find an intermediary company to work with. We are also looking into expanding into India and China and other countries, but with local partners.
Irrigation Leader: What results have N-Drip users seen from the product?
Uri Shani: As with regular drip systems, our product achieves higher yield than flood irrigation using less water. However, we do it with dramatically lower expenditure than to regular drip.
Irrigation Leader: What kinds of crops is N-Drip most suitable for?
Uri Shani: Basically, anything that was previously irrigated by flood irrigation. N-Drip works well for field crops as well as for fruit trees. It even works for crops like alfalfa. We need flat land for our system to work; from the point of adapting to the N-Drip system, the crop type is less important than the land.
Irrigation Leader: If a farmer in the United States wanted to transition to using N-Drip, what would the installation process look like?
Uri Shani: The first step is that we would come in to check the characteristics of the field. As I mentioned, it needs to be level. Any field that was previously irrigated with flood irrigation is good, but we need to know its slope and dimensions and the crop that is going to be grown. Then we go through a planning and design process. Because our system doesn’t use pressure or filtration, it is a little more sensitive to the terrain and has to be carefully designed for the specific field. We do the planning process and then work with the farmer on installation.
I invite any farmer who is interested to contact us and to try our products. Transitioning from furrow or flood irrigation to a drip system like N-Drip does require some education and information. We want to be there to guide farmers through the process. We have sensors that sample the field and measure its spatial variability, allowing us to perform a precise analysis and provide the farmers with guidance on how much to irrigate and when, and when and how to fertilize, especially considering nitrogen. That means that farmers not only buy hardware from us; they buy knowledge.
Irrigation Leader: Do you send an N-Drip employee out to the farm to check on all those things?
Uri Shani: Yes, always. An N-Drip employee will install all the sensors and talk with the farmer.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of N-Drip?
Uri Shani: Irrigation will change. We cannot continue to use water at a rate of 25 percent efficiency. We cannot continue to use fertilizers at a rate of 30–40 percent efficiency. It costs a lot of money and it’s not good for the environment. It used to be that the alternatives were too expensive. That is no longer the case. It won’t be long before many irrigators shift to this technology. My company’s job is to make sure that we play a role in that transition and benefit from it; but in terms of the technology, there is no question that it will advance.