Relying solely on rain-fed agriculture limits farmers’ ability to improve yields and income. Irrigation can unlock their potential, but it requires a combination of technology, finance and support.
Only about 4% of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa is currently irrigated, meaning that the majority of farmers depend on rainfall to water their crops. With climate change making rainfall more erratic, reliance on rain-fed agriculture places farmers in an increasingly vulnerable position. Access to affordable irrigation technology puts water management in the hands of the farmer and enables multiple, predictable harvests each year. This, in turn, can give smallholders the confidence to diversify into higher-value crops, such as beans and tomatoes, which need a reliable water supply.
A new report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel emphasises the need for African countries to implement effective irrigation policies in order to support economic development and food security. But large-scale public irrigation infrastructure is expensive and often fails to reach rural smallholders, so what is the best way to enhance access to irrigation technology? Many policymakers and funders now support devolved, farmer-led irrigation. The World Bank defines this as farmers themselves “driving the establishment, improvement or expansion of irrigated farming.” The 2018 Africa Green Revolution Forum in Kigali held a side event on the topic and published a Kigali Joint Statement calling for “the technology, practice, financing, operation, and maintenance needs [to] be determined by the farmers and community directly impacted by the irrigation system.”
Farmer-led irrigation is helped by the growth of more affordable and effective technologies, which make this approach a realistic prospect. KickStart – which operates in 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa – has modernised the decades-old and labour intensive treadle pump with its €60 MoneyMaker Hip Pump and €147 MoneyMaker Max, which enable farmers to irrigate up to 0.8 ha a day. “The original treadle pumps were difficult to operate,” says Jenna Rogers-Rafferty, KickStart’s director of development and strategic alliances. “Ours have an improved design, and are lighter and easier to use. We also discovered that women found elevated treadles difficult to use in a skirt, so with a simple engineering fix, ours are lower to the ground to make the pump more comfortable.” In a study of its Tanzania market, KickStart found that, on average, families using one of their pumps doubled their household income from €2,223 to €4,542 over a 12-month period.
Another manufacturer, Futurepump, offers a solar pump system made up of a solar panel linked to a suction pump, capable of delivering 1 l of water per second from depths of up to 6 m. It enables farmers to earn, on average, an additional €69 per season. When replacing a fuel pump, Futurepump says farmers using the solar system can also save on petrol, maintenance and labour costs of up to €260 a year. The company launched its second-generation SF2 system in the African market in early 2018, and has just started expanding into Papua New Guinea. Like KickStart, Futurepump has made the technology as user-friendly as possible for smallholders, and has addressed the challenge of maintenance. “We’ve made it smaller and more portable,” says Toby Hammond, Futurepump managing director. “It now also includes remote monitoring, so if we detect a problem with the technology, we can alert the distributor and they can contact the farmer to fix it.”
The market may be developing and costs coming down, but the SF2 retails at around €600, which is still a substantial investment. Another solar irrigation product, Kenya-based SunCulture’s Rainmaker2, is priced at KSh 125,900 (€1,072). KickStart’s treadle and hip pumps are cheaper, but still beyond the reach of the poorest farmers.
Agricultural finance is notoriously expensive and difficult to access for individual farmers, so Futurepump has teamed up with Equity Bank in Kenya to provide loans specifically for the SF2, while SunCulture offers its own 30-month repayment plan and KickStart has partnered with Vision Fund to offer loans for its pumps. An important feature of the Vision Fund loans is a 3-month period of no repayments to give farmers time to start making money from irrigation.
Futurepump has also found that enterprising farmers pay off their investment by renting out the pump. “One customer who bought his pump in 2016 rents it to other farmers for €3.50 a day, and to construction workers for €8.50 a day. He paid off the loan for his pump in less than a year,” states Hammond.
It may seem logical to support irrigation in any form, but site-specific knowledge is important. Working with over 700 farmers in Ethiopia to explore small-scale irrigation for diversifying vegetable production, Farm Africa promoted drip irrigation technology until farmers pointed out that the sandy soil resulted in openings becoming clogged. “We then introduced motorised and treadle pumps to complement the drip technology, and these were adopted quickly by farmers, who chose to bypass the drip technology and just pump water directly to the fields,” says Nico Mounard, Farm Africa CEO.
It’s also important to irrigate accurately, as over-watering can be bad for crop health and yields, and wash away fertilisers. A recent project, funded by ACIAR and CGIAR working with 1,700 farmers in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, introduced farmers to the FullStop Wetting Front Detector – a funnel-shaped device buried in the soil with an indicator above the surface. As water infiltrates into the root zone, the device measures nutrient and salt levels in the soil. Introduced alongside the Fullstop Detector was the Chameleon, a complementary tool that measures soil moisture at different depths, with a handheld reader displaying the soil moisture level via coloured lights. Farmers involved in the project were enthusiastic because they observed that accurate irrigation led to higher yields.
One participating farmer in Tanzania, who grows apple pepper on a 0.2 ha plot, reduced his irrigation frequency from four times to twice a month, and reported his highest ever crop and earnings (€910) from a single harvest. “I’ve been working in the small-scale irrigation area for nearly 3 decades and I’ve never seen responses from farmers to a new technology like I’ve seen with the Chameleon,” says Richard Stirzaker, principal research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Agriculture and Food Unit, who designed the tools. “The International Water Management Institute now also uses them in Ethiopia, Botswana and Myanmar.”
The ACIAR/CGIAR project also found that technology is more effective when its use is embedded in community structures that encourage knowledge sharing, so that the process is truly farmer-led. As such, the initiative organised agricultural innovation platforms – informal meetings between farmers, traders and researchers – to share learning about the tools, higher-value crops and market opportunities. “The tools alone would not have had the reported impact,” says Martin Moyo, a scientist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, who worked on the project in Zimbabwe. “They need to be embedded in a learning environment. We noted a great deal of farmer-to-farmer learning. Only 20% of farmers had the tools at the irrigation schemes, but more than 85% of farmers within the schemes changed their farming practices.”