Farmers lead revolution in water harvesting

Small scale irrigation is the key to a near tripling of sub-Saharan Africa's yields, according to a new study that has uncovered a revolution in the ways in which smallholders are driving low-cost farm and community water management.

The study by The International Water Management Institute (IWMI), focused on, among other countries, Tanzania, with the study revealing that its findings on Tanzania could be shared in the country's neighbouring countries, including Kenya.

According to the report, Water for wealth and food security: Supporting farmer-driven investments in agricultural water management, expanding the use of on-farm water management techniques could increase yields up to 300 per cent in some cases, and add hundreds of billions of shillings to household revenues across sub-Saharan Africa.

“Water is critical for agricultural growth and improved livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to Dr. Timothy O. Williams, IWMI’s director for Africa, based in Accra during the release of the report this week. “Agriculture provides food and employment for a large segment of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and inadequate access increases their vulnerability to food insecurity.”

The assessment quantified the potential reach and possible additional household revenue for a number of different on-farm and local community water solutions.

The three-year AgWater Solutions Research Initiative also unearthed for the first time the scale to which enterprising smallholders are driving the irrigation revolution by using their own resources innovatively rather than waiting for water to be delivered.

“The rate of progress is incredible,” said Dr. Victor Kongo of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)—Africa Centre, based at the University of Dar es Salaam, which coordinated the initiative in Tanzania. “Even though steep start-up costs, unwieldy supply chains, and other constraints are prevalent, smallholder farmers across Africa and Asia have tapped their own resources to finance and install irrigation technologies. It is the farmers themselves who are pushing at the forefront of this wave of change.”

In Tanzania, for instance, with the support of public investments in the Mkindo community-led irrigation scheme in the Morogoro region, smallholder farmers are realizing some Sh300 a day per quarter acre, compared to Sh130 using rainfed systems. The increase in productivity has led to improved livelihoods, with some of the farmers diversifying and investing in other sources of income such as small shops.

Partners in the AgWater collaboration believe the implications of the work could be profound, especially for donors and private investors committed to boosting incomes and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries by improving farmer access to water resources.

The research—a collaborative effort involving several international partners and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—provides the best evidence to-date on the scale and potential economic benefits of smallholder water management in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

As it is, the water resources are often sufficient, but farmers lack the means to harvest it. As a result, of sub-Saharan Africa’s renewable water resources, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only 3 per cent is withdrawn for agriculture. Likewise, only 4 per cent of arable land is equipped for irrigation, of which less than 6 per cent is serviced by groundwater.

Experts believe that improving water management capabilities could now unleash smallholder farming and become a major driver of economic growth, poverty reduction and food security.

One example is a scheme in the same Tanzanian district using a combination of water storage and terraces, where the maize yields on the terraces are twice as high as conventional yields.

“The technologies for farmers to manage their water usage have already been developed,” said Kongo. “Inexpensive water pumps and new ways of powering them are changing what it means to farm all over Africa and Asia. Even by using simple tools for drilling wells and capturing rainwater, many smallholders can now grow more crops in the dry season, a tremendous help in meeting their bottom lines. Therefore, there is a need for strategic public investment in these proven profitable initiatives by smallholder farmers to expedite their escape from poverty traps.”

There are, however, risks to the unchecked expansion of smallholder water management. The poorest farmers, especially women, still struggle to find the resources needed to access new technologies, which may lead to greater inequities. Moreover, if farmers engage in a water free-for-all, supplies in some areas could dwindle to below sustainable levels.

The report also urges consideration of payment for environmental services by downstream buyers, to encourage upstream soil and water conservation and ensure the sustainable management of catchment areas – as part of a systemic approach in managing soil and water resources.

AgWater partners are also focusing on innovative business models to help improve water access, such as pump-on-a-bike hire schemes, where cycling entrepreneurs tour rural areas, renting out pumps strapped to their bicycles.

“Letting farmers take the lead provides terrific investment opportunities,” said Eng. Futakamba Mbogo, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives. “AgWater Solutions has figured out where investments can be applied for maximum impact and to continue with this farmer-led progress”.

Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter