Flash Interview of the Month | Onno Schaap - Aquagri

Abril, 2022

The Flash Interview of the Month is a very short talk with one of our members, where the interviewee is able to talk about his/her experience in an informal way and where all stories are told in the 1st person. This month we are very pleased to introduce Onno Schaap, founder, and CEO of Aquagri International Irrigation Management. 

You have been living in Portugal for quite a while, how did you get here, and how did you get into the irrigation business? 

I studied in the Netherlands and in the UK about Irrigation, drainage, and hydrology and did my master’s degree in Irrigation Water Management. 1986 was my first time period in Portugal in the area of my study. I appreciated very much the Alentejo region and felt like this must be it. After this experience, I lived in Brazil and the UK for about 2.5 years. However, I felt that Portugal was the right choice, so I decided to return. At the same time, there was no suitable work in the Netherlands, so I took the challenge. I had nothing and thus nothing to lose either. In Portugal, in 1989 I got a job and started to design and install drip and sprinkler irrigation systems and then rolled into Golf Course construction. I worked for the contractor responsible for the turnkey construction of Quinta da Penha Longa in Sintra and Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro in Madeira. After a couple of years, I started my own consultancy in irrigation system design and irrigation water management, that is how I started in 1992. In 1994 I started with international consultancies (World Bank, EU,…) for donor agencies for irrigation water management, mainly in Central Asia, which was great. I still do this but in other geographical areas. I started my own business because I thought that I could, in this way, better develop my ideas. The problem was, of course, new ideas, no market, so you first need to develop the market, and that is what I did. This is not the easiest way, but looking back, it was the right thing to do. In 1998 I started Aquagri. Now we have 4 partners and are a team of 15, mostly irrigation agronomists. We also have a joint venture with a company in Morocco.

Can you tell us a little more about Aquagri?  

Since 1998, Aquagri is specialized in Services and Instruments for Irrigation Water Management, integrating sensors, satellite data and specific algorithms, cloud-based monitoring technologies, data analysis, and DSS tools. We have 14 persons in Portugal and 1 in Morocco. Our technical office provides various complementary services, such as Water Logistics Studies, irrigation, and drainage design, soil studies, EC scanning, irrigation system performance audit, and practical training courses on irrigation, irrigation management, and use and maintenance of equipment. We have 24 years of experience in irrigation management on the following crops: vineyards, olives, date palm, almonds, pomegranate, berries, potato, tomato, corn, soy, winter cereals, vegetables, and sports turf. We have clients in Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Armenia, Moldova, The Netherlands, Angola, Ethiopia, South Africa, Brazil, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, and many others. After having worked in Morocco for several years, in 2015 we started together with our local partner, a company called Agriprecision SARL with its headquarters in Casablanca. We represent: Pessl Instruments (Austria), Sentek (Australia), Royal Eijkelkamp (The Netherlands), STEP systems (Germany), Waterloo HG (Canada), IrriWatch (The Netherlands)  

Portugal has been suffering from drought, especially this year. Can Aquagri play a role in this, making it possible for farmers to guarantee a healthy yield regardless of passing a dryer period?  

We assist the farmers in making better decisions on how much, when, and where to irrigate. We do this with different kinds of sensors that communicate remotely, satellite-derived data, and algorithms. We integrate this information and provide support for irrigation decision-making using our web-based Decision Support System Myirrigation.eu. We are helping farmers to optimize their irrigation water use through “Needs-Based Irrigation management”. So, what is the need? Well, that depends. For fruit crops, vines, olives, and almonds, an irrigation strategy that applies to Regulated Deficit Irrigation Strategies, results in significantly lower water use and an increase in the quality of the produce. For field crops, a different irrigation strategy can apply. We focus on optimization of gross margin, which can mean not the maximum productivity, but the best balance between cost and revenues. By cutting luxury water use and providing the water that is needed for the crop to produce its products, fewer inputs are needed, and the gross margin can be better. There must of course be water to irrigate. With insufficient water or no water, it will be very difficult to grow crops in many regions in Portugal. In this case, the farmer can decide to reduce the irrigated area and concentrate the water in a smaller area, to guarantee sufficient water for the area that will be cultivated. We are using satellite-image-based algorithms to determine how much water the crops are using. This is quite a revolutionary method that provides clear Key Performance Indicators and will result in an increase in water productivity to manage water, you need to measure what you are doing. We provide the clients with the information they need to manage their irrigation water.        

What do you think of the traditional ways of farming? Are these sustainable or should we focus on alternatives like permaculture and is Aquagri compatible with these sustainable kinds of farming?   

Food production can be done in different ways, it depends on how much the consumer can and is willing to pay for what type of food. Many ways of farming can be sustainable. With sustainability, we understand “financially sustainable”. Permaculture is one way of farming, once adapted to the local conditions (climate, soils, water availability for irrigation), it is one way of farming. There are many examples that this can work very well. Can these alternative growing methods be done on such a scale so that the consumer will have enough food for an acceptable price? In Brazil, there are good examples, but in Portugal, the local conditions are very different, so adaptations must be made, and systems cannot be copied from one place to another. However, there are some good examples in Portugal. Probably the answer is that there will be the need for multiple farming systems in parallel to provide for the needs of the population. Aquagri services focus on the best possible use of production factors for any farming system. Nowadays for financial sustainability, we think that any farming system can be improved once it is data-driven, and that is what we provide. The recent communication systems (LORA, NBIOT) and IoT sensor systems are much more cost-effective and thus more affordable than some years ago. This is very good news, and we have this already integrated into our package.          

With climate change, more periods of extreme drought are expected to come. How could we fight this and is there something we could do at home?   

Climate change is happening, measures are indicated, and we can follow these. In Portugal, the Ministry of Agriculture is working on water dams to store water for irrigation and drinking water. There is a scope to make more surface water available. Important is that irrigation water will be used in the most optimal way. When I started with Irrigation Water Management some 30 years ago, the typical water use by farmers was much higher than it is now. Now, by using efficient irrigation systems and managing them properly, significant water savings are made. The cost price of irrigation water is a very efficient mechanism to promote better management, the prices are increasing and in some areas, water use restrictions are already implemented. One of the results is better management by the users. At home, I think it has to do with eating less meat and more fresh vegetables, a more balanced diet, and less quantity.    

How do you see the future of irrigation, water management, farming, and Aquagri?  

We are investing a lot of money in software and more cost-effective instrumentation. The water users are extremely keen on these services, we experience that the requests from the water users are increasing every year. We experience that our products are needed and that we can help the water users with their needs. The future is happening now, and we are investing continuously to develop further and improve our services. Farming is becoming more efficient; it is called precision farming. We observe a generational change amongst the farmers, young well-educated people come into the sector, and they are very open to new ideas and working methods.      

What has been your biggest challenge as Dutchman living in Portugal?  

For me, the most difficult was to adapt to the different payment morals. Very late payments made it difficult for me in the beginning, especially without a lot of money in the bank and payments received only after 12 months. In the last years, the payment morale is improving, and it seems easier to get paid. Another thing I found difficult was the following: I had, and still have a lot of ideas, which I think were/are good to be applied in Portugal, but they did not appreciate my ideas as such, or at least it seemed to be like that. This does not mean that the ideas were not valid, but you learn to sell your ideas in a different way. Over the years you learn to package ideas and messages in a different way, if you want to live in another country you need to adapt to that country, the country will not adapt to you. Adaptation to Portugal and its people went well after all and now I feel totally integrated.


In 2018 Aquagri existed for 20 years and Onno gave an interview to Vida Rural. Read the interview here