Marie von Hafften

Beyond Technology: Five ways to support water irrigation in Sub Saharan Africa

Big government-funded irrigation projects in Sub-Saharan Africa are often expensive and inaccessible, so farmers are taking matters into their own hands.

Using small-scale groundwater irrigation technology, farmers with small plots of land are growing bigger yields and expanding crop diversity, according to research by the International Water Management Institute.

“[T]he use of groundwater for irrigation by smallholder farmers is expanding more rapidly than previously thought throughout the sub-continent, and in recent years has mirrored the situation observed in India in the early stages of the Green Revolution,” according to Anna Deinhard, communications fellow at the institute. “Importantly, most of the growth is being driven spontaneously by the farmers themselves.”

Smallholder irrigation may be essential to alleviating rural poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. A study supported by the Rockefeller Foundation found that smallholder irrigation systems improved not only water management, but also food security and income. By investing in irrigation, farmers can reduce their reliance on rainwater and expand their yields, growing season and choice of crops.

Along with motorized pumps and wells, a popular low-cost irrigation option is the treadle pump, which draws groundwater to the surface by foot power and costs less than $200. In 2009, Mercy Corps facilitated the use of treadle pumps in Zimbabwe by setting up supply chains, encouraging competition among pump suppliers, and loaning farmers funds to purchase pumps to improve yields.

In the Murehwa district of Zimbabwe where Mercy Corps focused its efforts, treadle pump irrigation boosted the annual incomes of farming households by US$800, a major increase in a country where the average annual income is US$500. This simple technology more than doubled household incomes and paid for itself during its first year of use.

Despite the growing demand for irrigation technology, the International Water Management Institute found that farmers still face significant barriers to groundwater irrigation success, such as a lack of capital and a lack of information about where water is distributed and how quickly it replenishes after use. Reducing these barriers will increase farmers’ access to irrigation technology and ensure water use is sustainable.

  1. Farmers need expanded markets to sell their produce. As irrigation supports greater yields, farmers may overwhelm their usual markets and face decreasing prices, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization cautions. Aid organizations can help farmers access new national and international markets, transforming their rising output into flexible household income.

  2. Irrigation technology should be affordable, profitable and locally repairable. Instead of simply giving away pumps, aid organizations can help set up dependable sources of equipment so that local entrepreneurs can rent out pumps to farmers or create their own irrigation businesses. “The supply chain must also function as a conduit for spare parts, maintenance services and feedback to manufacturers,” recommends the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

  3. Microfinance helps farmers access new technology. Even low-cost technologies may be unaffordable to smallholder farmers. Microfinance has been slow to reach some rural areas with tailored products for agricultural communities, but it is crucially necessary, Jennifer Burney, who studies irrigation in developing countries at the University of California-San Diego, told The Guardian. “Capital is the number one constraint for adoption. It will unblock the system.”

  4. More research is needed about Africa’s hydrogeology. Sustainable water use and the appropriate choice of irrigation technology depend on hidden groundwater supplies. The treadle pump, for example, usually cannot reach below 15 meters. A deep water table may require a different use of technology. How groundwater may be accessed and used sustainably are important questions that determine the success of irrigation efforts. This is highlighted by a recent case in eastern Ethiopia in which groundwater overuse emptied a crater lake and led to conflict among users.

  5. Information should be accessible. A basic way to support small-scale irrigation is providing tailored information to local communities, suggests global development journalist Caspar van Vark in The Guardian. Translating instructions and recommendations into local languages, explains van Vark, helps farmers capitalize fully and knowledgeably on their irrigation investments. In areas of low literacy, information can be shared through presentations and community discussions.

“More than 70 percent of the world’s poorest people are small scale farmers,” reports iDE, an organization that improved access to pumps and expanded markets in Zambia. Irrigation technology helps farmers grow their harvests and incomes, creating more choices for their families and communities along the way.

Only 5 percent of cultivated land is currently equipped for irrigation in Sub-Saharan Africa. The will for small-scale irrigation technology is strong. With improvements in these five areas, farmers are ready to create a water revolution.

Marie von Hafften is an intern at Mercy Corps, a NextBillion Content Partner.

smallholder farmers