Small-Scale Farm Irrigation Holds Big Promise for Africa

Tanzania farmingThe recent discovery of a large aquifer in Kenya is a reminder that far from being dry, Africa has abundant water resources. The problem for farmers is access: only about 6 percent of cultivated land is equipped for irrigation, leaving millions dependent on rain-fed agriculture. How might more of them be helped to access water that could raise their productivity?

Large-scale, government-funded irrigation systems have long attempted to address this, with varying degrees of success. Those systems have a place, but research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has found that many smallholders are themselves taking the lead and investing in their own low-cost, small-scale irrigation systems.

Surveys carried out by IWMI as part of its AgWater Solutions project revealed a growing trend for individual and community-owned agricultural water management systems. In Ghana, for instance, small private irrigation schemes were found to cover 25 times more land than public irrigation schemes.

“Small-scale agricultural water management dominates the landscape in South Asia but it’s really becoming quite a feature also in sub-Saharan Africa now,” says Meredith Giordano, principal researcher at IWMI.

“When we looked and added up the numbers, it was much more than was recognized. So this is happening in Africa, and it’s important to recognize that, because it hasn’t been widely documented.”

The findings of the AgWater Solutions project – carried out with partners including FAO and Stockholm Environment Institute, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – suggest that supporting smallholder irrigation could have a significant impact on productivity and incomes.

In Zambia, for example, it found that smallholders who were able to cultivate vegetables in the dry season earned 35 percent more than those who do not. The systems used for small-scale irrigation, such as pumps and on-farm ponds, are relatively cheap, and being freed from rain dependence can allow farmers to grow crops year-round, and to grow more high-value crops.

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