Africa, like the rest of the world, faces the threat of climate change. As unpredictable weather patterns increasingly disrupt planting and harvesting seasons, reduce arable land and cause a dwindling water supply, smallholder farmers are turning to innovative systems to secure year-round food production.
These challenges adversely impact the economic growth of many countries where nearly 70% of some 33 million farmers on the continent are smallholder farmers who produce about threequarters of the food the agriculture-based populations rely on.
Smallholder farmers have traditionally relied on rain-fed farming, but erratic rainfall patterns and extreme climate conditions now cause their crops to fail. As a result of reduced production, they rely heavily on imports, which constitute as much as 85% of the food consumed.
However, irrigation based on sustainable and water-efficient practices, can drive agricultural transformation to increase yields and improve resilience to the impact of climate change and bring millions back from the brink of starvation.
According to the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s report, Water-Wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa (2018), erratic weather caused by climate change has led to a surge of interest in irrigation among small-scale farmers in Africa. Yet only 6% of arable land in Africa is irrigated, compared to other developing countries like 14 and 37% percent in Latin America and Asia.
“Irrigation investments need to accelerate in Africa,” states the Report. “By meeting the need for expanded agricultural production, and by drawing on strengthened capacities as well as promising technologies that facilitate decentralised water-saving approaches, these investments will be attractive to farmers, businesses, and governments.”
According to the Report, African countries that have invested in irrigation have been able to shield their farmers and population from hunger while reducing dependence on imports.
Smallholder-led irrigation revolution
Small-scale, farmer-led irrigation systems make up 83% of irrigated land in the majority of Sub-Saharan African countries.
In Niger, where 80% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, irrigation innovations have mostly been driven by smallholder food producers with the backing of the government and private sector. This has speeded up irrigation expansion that boosted yields and incomes of these food producers while guaranteeing year-round food production.
In Zimbabwe, many irrigation and fertiliser investments have led to the establishment of a sustainable wheat supply that cut reliance on imports.
in Ghana, private irrigation schemes by smallholder farmers employ 45 times more individuals and cover 25 times more land than public irrigation schemes.
“In Tanzania, half of the dry-season cash incomes of smallholders come from growing irrigated vegetables,” the Report further states.
“In Zambia, the 20% of smallholders who cultivate vegetables in the dry season earn 35% more than those who do not.”
“Investment costs of small-scale irrigation technologies are affordable, and implementation is relatively straightforward when compared to large-scale irrigation, so the potential for up-scaling and reducing poverty is high,” notes a 2012 Water for wealth and food security report by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
Irrigation is the artificial application of water to land for agricultural production. Water for irrigation comes directly from a natural source of water such as a river, creek, lake, a dam, rainwater harvesting storage tank, or from underground water, whether a borehole or shallow wells in a wetland.
The water is transferred to agricultural land by using gravity diversion methods through canals or furrows or flood irrigation, human-powered systems like buckets or watering cans, or more sophisticated technologies including liquid fuel-engine driven or solar powered pumps that delivers water through a network of pipes and sprinklers.
Drip irrigation delivers water by means of pipes and drippers directly to the base of the plant. Subsurface drip irrigation is similar to drip irrigation, but the pipes are buried underground thereby reducing water evaporation.
Sprinkler irrigation requires an electric or generator-driven pump to operate either as circular system which rotates around a pivot, or a lateral system that moves laterally across the field. This system is expensive and is mostly used by more affluent farmers who produce commercial crops.
New innovations that offer small-scale farmers an affordable irrigation option include the bucket drip system and solar-powered irrigation.
Bucket drip kit
At present, more affordable smaller drip systems are available to smallholding farmers in some areas. Bucket drip kits are low-cost kits that use buckets and hoses to deliver water directly to plants.
East African company Elgon Kenya manufactures a small irrigation system called Kadogo drip kit in their bid to reach more food producers with irrigated farming. https://www.elgonkenya.com/
“The whole idea behind the miniature irrigation kit was formed by the realisation that a bulk of food producers were smallholder farmers who were being buffeted by variations in weather and relied heavily on rainfed agriculture,” says Nelson Maina, Communication and Marketing Manager at Elgon Kenya.
“However, irrigation systems were out of reach for them due to the cost constraints and the technicalities involved in installation and running the systems. The miniature kits have been pivotal in promoting sustainable food production while building resilience among smallholder farmers to climatic shocks.”
Solar-powered irrigation uses solar energy to operate pumps for irrigation, especially in regions with limited access to electricity.
SunCulture offers solar irrigation solutions with a pay-as-you-go model where farmers can make small monthly instalments. https://sunculture.io/
Many farmers in Kenya, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Senegal, and Ethiopia, among others, have started using solar irrigation systems, which has led to an increase in yields by 300% and saving up to 80% of water usage.
By using the solar option, the company aims to prevent the emission of 20 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, as well as saving water.
“As water supplies dwindle and rains fail, we need to put in place measures that ensure we utilise the little water we have sustainably in order to avoid adverse impacts on health and the environment,” says Jacktone Otieno, an Agriculture Economist at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
A study in Zimbabwe published by Philip Woodhouse et al in The Journal of Peasant Studies, indicated that farmer-led irrigation proportionally covers more land than formal irrigation schemes at a provincial level.
These farmers still rely on networks of suppliers of technology and repair services, as well as extension agents, transporters, bankers and credit agencies and market brokers.
Farmer-led irrigation is flexible and adaptable. At the one end, some very small plots, usually around homesteads, are favoured by women, who can combine watering and tending vegetables with domestic chores and caring for the family.
At the other extreme, larger plots with irrigation systems use submersible pumps powered by generators and fitted to boreholes. These farmers have upgraded to farming on a commercial scale and have contracts with supermarkets and vegetable traders in nearby market centres.
Mobile pump sets made in China are available in every town and are repairable by local mechanics. Using flexible piping, water sources can be used throughout the year.
Sustainable production has created jobs and boosted the economy. To prevent a market glut for perishable produce diversification is necessary.
With extensive mobile phone coverage, farmers are not only able to negotiate contracts and supply markets, but also have instant access to valuable information provided by online publications such as ProAgri.
Rethinking irrigation policy
Research proved that engineer-designed irrigation systems all over the continent have often failed as a result of strict water regulations and equipment breakdowns. Yet, such schemes remain central to development programmes across the continent.
Although these standard irrigation schemes will continue to be part of the answer to sustainable irrigation in Africa, one should not dismiss the importance of small-scale, flexible, farmer-led, informal irrigation by smallholder farmers across Africa.
Challenges abound, with larger operations dominated by more affluent farmers, limited markets, lack of product diversification, storage, and processing. Above all, water sources are limited, and sustainable use and access regulations must be heeded.
With the support of government policies that support smallholder-led irrigation systems, the challenges can be surmounted.
Koigi, B. (2022) What Africa’s irrigation renaissance means for food security. Fair Planet
Giordano, M., De Fraiture, C., Weight, E., Van der Bliek, J. (2012) Water for wealth and food security. International Water Management Institute (IWMI). https://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/Publications/Other/Reports/PDF/Water_for_wealth_and_food_security.pdf
Scoones, I. (2019) Irrigating Africa: can small-scale farmers lead the way? The Conversation
Water-Wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa (2018)
Woodhouse, P., Veldwisch, G.J., Venot, J., Brockington, H., Manjichi, A. (2016)
African farmer-led irrigation development: re-framing agricultural policy and investment? Taylor & Francis Online