"Large-scale irrigation presents several benefits"

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Interview with Karim El Aynaoui

Karim El Aynaoui, managing director of the Policy Center for New South (PCNS) and member of the Malabo Montpellier (MaMo) Panel, explains what Africa can gain from effective irrigation policies and programmes.

The MaMo Panel report, Water-Wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa, recommends that African policymakers make irrigation a top priority. Why is it so important that African countries implement effective irrigation policies?

Low agricultural productivity still hinders Africa’s agricultural development sector, leading to high levels of food insecurity. To promote agriculture on the continent, the private sector and governments must act on various key elements. Among those, irrigation should be addressed first in order to intensify agricultural growth, while ensuring it is both inclusive and sustainable. Currently, only 6% of cultivated land is irrigated in Africa. Compared to other continents such as Asia, where 37% of cultivated land is equipped for irrigation, this rate is very low and can be significantly improved. Irregular and insufficient rainfall, long periods of drought and the negative impacts of climate change are bottlenecks that must be overcome to improve agricultural production in Africa, particularly to meet a rapidly growing food demand. Effective and efficient irrigation policies, which take into account the context of increasing water scarcity and growing water demand, should therefore be implemented to achieve a successful structural transformation of African economies.

Are there any stand-out lessons from the report’s case studies that other African countries could learn from?

The report showcases several countries across Africa that have experienced significant progress in implementing effective irrigation strategies, building large-scale infrastructure and establishing innovative institutional frameworks. Sharing these experiences with other countries on the continent will help shape new irrigation strategies to tackle local issues. For example, Morocco and Mali have invested in developing irrigation infrastructure to mobilise water for agriculture. Thanks to those efforts, the two countries recorded a higher pace of irrigation expansion compared to other African nations.

We can see a different, yet equally impactful initiative in Ethiopia, where the government promoted small- and medium-scale irrigation systems and established an irrigation development programme that consists of improving water efficiency toward food self-sufficiency. To this end, the government plans to build micro dams to catch flows from rivers and promote the use of shallow wells using manual pumps. There are many experiences that could help African countries in shaping their irrigation policies – however, a deep understanding of the local context is essential.

What are the benefits and limitations of large-scale government-funded irrigation schemes?

No matter the source of funding, either public or private, each irrigation management scheme has its advantages and limitations. The choice of large irrigation projects or small-scale irrigation depends on technical and financial characteristics, namely the existing quantities of water endowments, the surface area of land dominated by dams, the possibility of bringing water to farmers and the cost of projects. Where it is technically possible, large-scale irrigation presents several benefits. From the agricultural production point of view, it is a means of supplying water to large areas. By closing the gap in the variability of rainfall over space and time, such irrigation systems improve yields and stabilise agricultural production for many farmers in the same area. As a result, national agricultural production is stabilised, and food prices too.

The other side of the coin is that large-scale irrigation can have poor environmental ramifications – by increasing the alkalinity or salinity of soils and groundwater, for example – and can also encourage monoculture, consequently decreasing farmers’ incentive to innovate. Farmers must therefore be involved as major players in irrigation strategies established by governments. They have the local know-how that is necessary to ensure the effective implementation of irrigation systems with minimal negative impacts on the environment.

Des success stories pour inspirer les jeunes

En Afrique, 420 millions de personnes (soit 60 % de la population) ont entre 15 et 35 ans. Un nombre qui devrait doubler d’ici à 2040. Sur le continent, l’agriculture est un secteur primordial, puisqu’il représente près des deux tiers des emplois. “Ils l’ont fait !” met ainsi en évidence les réalisations de 24 jeunes entrepreneurs promus par AgribusinessTV, une webtélé créée en 2016 au Burkina Faso.

Digitalisation: an important lever for agricultural transformation

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In the 48 pages of their annual report, CTA demonstrates the extent to which their actions in support of digitalisation contribute to agricultural transformation in ACP countries. “It is becoming increasingly evident that a strong focus on digitalisation as a means to drive agricultural transformation is bearing dividends in the forms of increased production, better livelihoods, more efficient value chains and ultimately greater food and nutrition security,” is the message from Michael Hailu, CTA Director.

Fixing food systems for environmental sustainability

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Two reports and a new book highlight how food can be used to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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