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Nebraska Innovation Campus

A look inside one of the greenhouses on Nebraska Innovation Campus. Officials say NU research has a $385 million annual economic impact on the state.

There is no universal approach to water and food security, the researchers, farmers, executives and nonprofit workers spending three days at Nebraska Innovation Campus will tell you.

The irrigation technology Nebraska farmers implement across hundreds of acres of cropland presents one set of challenges, while the small farmer in sub-Saharan Africa who just installed a pump to irrigate a few acres last year has another, for example.

But how the lessons learned in rural areas of India, where irrigation has transformed the landscape, can inform water and food security on the other side of the planet is at the nexus of the discussion between 400 people from 30 different countries in Lincoln this week.

Take Sithembile Mwamakamba, who sees the annual Water for Food Global Conference as a chance for her to share the work being done in Africa while also looking at how it fits into a larger picture.

The project manager at the Farm, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network in Johannesburg has helped 5,000 farmers in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe start small-scale irrigation practices.

Irrigating cropland has led to increased profits for the farmers, who are then incentivized to invest back into their own operation.

Mwamakamba said the program has changed societal attitudes toward irrigation and created new economic opportunities for African farmers.

She hopes others at the conference can help spark new ideas to continue improving the food production capabilities across Africa.

“We want to hear what Asia is doing -- they’ve done really well in developing their irrigation systems,” she said. “We’re hoping to get some lessons from them on how we can improve the things in the countries we’re working in.”

Three-quarters of the 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on crop and livestock farming for their livelihoods, said Timothy Williams, director of the International Water Management Institute in Accra, Ghana, but only 5 percent of that number are engaged in irrigation practices.

“To transform rain-fed landscapes to irrigated agriculture, we need scientific knowledge, we need investments,” Williams said.

Williams led a panel Tuesday afternoon that presented a half-dozen case studies on how that transformation can work at the local level.

This week’s eighth annual global conference is also a chance for University of Nebraska-Lincoln students to present their research and connect with like-minded individuals from around the globe.

Olufemi Abimbola, a biological systems engineering student from Nigeria, said once he finishes his doctoral degree, he is thinking about returning to his home country to share what he has learned while launching his own farm.

“Whoever feeds Nigeria, feeds Africa,” he said. “We have a better economy compared to all of those countries, so if we can feed ourselves, we can actually export our food.”

Opening Tuesday's session, NU President Hank Bounds said hosting the global conference in Nebraska was appropriate.

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"We're located in the middle of the country, and certainly in the middle of this conversation," Bounds said.

He said the problems undertaken by the Water for Food Institute as well as the conference are shared by all.

"If you eat, this topic impacts you," he said. "In my view, water security is the biggest national security issue of our time. It takes all of us coming together bringing our collective will to solve this matter."

Jeff Raikes, a former Microsoft executive and CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the conference was a chance to discuss "the challenges we see to humanity."

"Global change begins at home and global influences affect local issues," he said. "We must collaborate at the local levels to ensure innovations are successful and that they take root."

Lincoln is the right place to ensure those collaborations take root, Mwamakamba said.

“We are not sitting on our hands,” she said. “What we need are partnerships to take the work we’re doing to the next level.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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