Nearly four years ago, researchers documented for the first time how farmer-led irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is transforming food security at an astonishing scale. They also showed that smallholder water management innovations hold potential to boost crop yields and household revenue by tens of billions of US dollars.
Since then, however, new research for development has revealed how small-scale irrigation may have benefits that reach far beyond food security alone.
Four ways to invest in smallholder irrigation
The research was initially carried out by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and its partners under the AgWater Solutions project. At its conclusion, the project recommended four key areas that investments should focus on in order to unlock the potential of small-scale irrigation:
- increasing access to water resources, including sustainable groundwater, small reservoirs and rainwater harvesting;
- catalyzing smallholder value chains, removing information and marketing constraints;
- creating policy synergies, such as aligned energy policies; and
- taking a watershed perspective to reduce adverse environmental impacts.
Building on this work, WLE and USAID have supported research and development of business models that can operationalize these recommendations, while also exploring new solutions and creating a better understanding of potential additional impacts and benefits from investments in smallholder irrigation.
New technologies produce new opportunities and remove constraints
One new opportunity is solar pumps, which has only recently become a financially viable option for smallholder farmers. Solar power irrigation has taken off in India and is starting to take hold in sub-Saharan Africa, where solar powered pumps can serve as a more versatile, green alternative to motor pumps. The Africa Rising project, in collaboration with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), has begun demonstrating solar powered pumps in two regions of Ethiopia.
Another new technology is wetting front detectors – essentially a device that makes it easy for farmers to see when the soil has been sufficiently watered. WLE researchers are introducing this tool in Ethiopia and Ghana, through the USAID-supported Innovation Lab on Small Scale irrigation (ILSSI), to help farmers manage their water resources more effectively. The technology has proven successful in reducing irrigation frequency, consequently saving time and labor costs as well as conserving precious water resources.
Similarly, on request of the Government of Nigeria, researchers are developing new information and communication technology applications in flood-prone regions, such as in Nigeria’s Benue River Basin, to support flood early warning systems, reduce risks posed by flooding, and to put floodwaters to productive agricultural use.
Finally, WLE researchers are also exploring options to improve farmers’ access to financial information and credit, which has been a key constraint in the past. Activities include training to improve financial literacy of both farmers and financial institutions, improving access to loans for irrigation technologies, and assessing the potential for private-public partnerships in irrigation.
Potential impacts and benefits
The AgWater Solutions project provided estimates of the potential reach (millions of people) and additional household net revenue (billions of US dollars annually) for a number of different on-farm and local community water solutions across sub-Saharan Africa. Now, new research provides insights into other potential impacts and benefits, including nutrition, health and climate resilience.
For example, the potential for small-scale irrigation to improve gender equity and nutrition security has been an understudied component of agricultural water management research in the past. Now, as part of the ILSSI program, WLE researchers are unpacking the complex relationships among water, nutrition, health and gender. Also farmers’ resilience may be strengthened through irrigation solutions, especially through water-smart agriculture that considers water variability and climate uncertainties.
Small-scale irrigation continues to grow in sub-Saharan Africa, and the potential for huge, beneficial impacts remain. While the investment pathways originally identified are still valid, new technologies and insights open doors for even greater impacts. Innovative solutions for small-scale irrigation hold the promise of large-scale benefits beyond yields and income, including gender equality, nutrition security and climate resilience.