Engineering a Low-cost Device to Monitor Irrigation in Rural Kenya (2021-2022)


The discovery of oil has led to a boom of development in remote regions of northern Kenya resulting in a more settled, less nomadic lifestyle. Near the rivers, farming communities organize informal irrigation programs, characterized by hand-dug, earth canals that spread in a complex network from the river. Field flooding is very irregular and controlled by blocking channels with mud and opening others. When farmers identify a field that needs water, they open the channels by digging out the temporary mud block and allow the field to flood. The channel remains open until it is redirected toward another farm.

Irrigation schemes are essential for these settlements but are likely posing a significant health risk by supporting mosquito breeding. Although previously considered mostly unsuitable for malaria transmission, northern Kenya is experiencing unprecedented outbreaks of malaria. However, this risk can be mitigated if water flows regularly to flush out larvae or canals are allowed to dry completely at regular intervals.  

Project Description

This project team aims to investigate malaria outbreaks and explore methods in harvesting, using and storing water in these newly coalescing settlements in northern Kenya. Controlling the water flow and residency is essential to mitigate disease risk, but currently there is no low-cost, locally-appropriate system to monitor water flow in these irrigation networks.

Team members will research the role that community irrigation schemes may play in malaria outbreaks and devise strategies to help communities monitor and control their irrigation to prevent disease vectors from thriving. The main goal of this project is to design a tool that can measure the fill and flow of water in hand-dug irrigation canals. The long-term objective is to use this tool to train communities to monitor their channel system and work with community members to design an optimal routine for moving water that avoids blooms of mosquitoes and reduces disease outbreaks.

The team will incorporate a human-centered design process to investigate the situation in north-west Kenya through interviews and discussion with local leaders. Device prototypes will first be developed and tested locally and then evaluated in Kenya. While the devices are being tested, the presence of mosquito larva in proximity to the device will be quantified. Team members will analyze the water and mosquito data to assess how well the device’s measurements correlate to the presence of larva throughout the canal. They will also work to understand the irrigation process and improve the device quantity/ locations to better map the water usage habits. Ultimately, this will help inform guidelines for when community members should move water in the irrigation system to reduce mosquito breeding.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Prototype device; open-source design plans; technical manual; peer reviewed publication; irrigation monitoring guidelines 

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 2 graduate students and 4-6 undergraduate students. Solving this problem requires knowledge and experience at the intersection of health, development, engineering and the environment. Engineering students, regardless of their subspecialty, are encouraged to apply. Students with experience in spatial data visualization/mapping or with interest in the intersection of health and environment would be valuable contributors to this project. Master’s students enrolled at the Duke Global Health Institute will be essential to help lead subteams and introduce a global health perspective to the project. Undergraduate majors in anthropology could be valuable in understanding the cultural domain of technology adoption. Students studying entomology might also have an interest in contributing to this project. Students pursuing a comajor in global health will be prioritized. 

The team will use management software to facilitate continuous communication for weekly meetings. The project manager will organize the meetings, track the deliverables and assign specific tasks. Team members will be divided into 3 subteams to focus on specific aspects of the project, including:

  1. Designing the channel-based flow monitor and the interface of the monitor with an android phone
  2. Developing the framework used to interpret data from a set of monitors over time and space
  3. Designing and implementing studies to measure the impact of irrigation/irrigation control on mosquitoes and vector borne disease risk

Master’s students will have the opportunity to lead subteams. Selected students will have the opportunity to travel and test their prototypes, collect data and meet their collaborators in Winter 2021 or Summer 2022, if travel is permitted.

Hannah Meredith will serve as project manager.


Summer 2021 – Spring 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Background research
  • Fall 2021: Determine design specifications; conduct literature review; develop initial prototypes; design studies for measuring the impact of irrigation on mosquito risk
  • Winter Break: Travel to Kenya; test early protoypes and collect data; refine approach; gather community feedback
  • Spring 2022: Refine and test prototypes; draft manuals; design data collection plan; develop community-oriented communication materials 


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Red Cross furrow irrigation project in Lukole, near Malindi, Kenya, by Climate Centre, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Red Cross furrow irrigation project in Lukole, Kenya.

Team Leaders

  • Marc Deshusses, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Hannah Meredith, Duke Global Health Institute
  • Patrick O'Meara, Consultant Engineer
  • Wendy Prudhomme-O'Meara, School of Medicine-Medicine: Infectious Diseases

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Ann Saterbak, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Joseph Kipkoech, Moi University
  • Andrew Obala, Moi University
  • Kenneth Wabwire, Turkana County Government