Neil Palmer/CIAT.

Targeted irrigation would bolster food security for African smallholders

The ability of millions of small-scale farmers to sustainably increase productivity, incomes and adapt to change, is contingent not only on the adoption of technologies but also enabling policies and market incentives.

Small-scale irrigation potential

Building on previous successes of the work of the multi-partner AgWater Solutions Project (AWM), WLE assesses how gains in productivity and sustainability can be obtained by adapting and disseminating small-scale irrigation practices. In Africa, recent research suggests that investments in motorized pumps could benefit 185 million people, generating net revenues of up to US$22 billion/year.

In 2013, WLE researchers persuaded the Nigerian government to invest in water-management solutions for dry-season farming and to 'flood-proof' areas. AWM project work also influenced the US AID-funded 'Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-scale Irrigation' project (2013-2018, USD 12 million), and a $25 million food security program funded by US AID/Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

 Pumps and sprinkler irrigation in Ghana
Pumps and sprinkler irrigation in Ghana.
Joe Ronzio/IWMI.

Solutions already exist

More than 80 percent of Africa's poor depend on agriculture, yet only about 5 percent of arable land is irrigated. That leaves most farmers dependent on the vagaries of rainfall. Parts of sub-Saharan Africa have large, underground aquifers that are literally untapped resources for irrigation. Small-scale irrigation is more affordable and manageable than large-scale irrigation projects, making adoption by smallholder farmers easier.

"There are about a dozen low-cost water management options currently in existence that farmers could use - if they had access to them," said Claudia Ringler, senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "These solutions haven't made it into farmers' hands because policy makers haven't provided the enabling environment that would allow these tools to spread. But there is increasing realization by investors that smallholder agricultural water technologies can really pay off."

"These solutions haven't made it into farmers' hands because policy makers haven't provided the enabling environment that would allow these tools to spread."


Greater crops, greater profit

Research found that small-scale irrigation technologies, such as motorized pumps, water capture and water storage devices, could boost food production, reduce poverty and spur economic growth. Researchers estimate that as little as USD 50 million in targeted investments could dramatically increase the incomes of more than a million farmers.

One of the main goals for boosting small-scale irrigation is that it will enable African farmers to grow crops during the dry season. "If you can grow one more crop in the dry season, you can then make a profit," said Liangzhi You, IFPRI senior scientist. "A lot of government agencies and even donor communities like big projects, but if you look at the returns, small-scale (irrigation) actually gives higher returns and, from my own research, I think small-scale irrigation is the future in the African context."

Farmers around Kolu, Ethiopia, are busy ploughing. Irrigation helps them to produce more crops.
Petterik Wiggers, Panos Pictures UK.

Policy change may pave the way

The AWM work also has led to recommendations to remove tariffs on water-lifting devices in Ghana, Ethiopia and Tanzania and the lifting of barriers to groundwater pumping in West Bengal. WLE has been working with the Ethiopian government on these issues, and a couple of other African countries either have boosted budgets or are considering policy changes to boost smallholder farming.

By working with policymakers, WLE and partners will continue to influence investments in small-scale irrigation technologies and enable farmers across Africa to become more food secure.