New research urges more investment in people, rather than concrete, to secure African food security

5 June 2017

New research on small-scale communal irrigation systems in South-eastern Africa, led by the Australian National University, finds that if irrigation systems are to successfully secure food supplies under a changing climate, western and national donors must invest in better scheme management rather than only investing in infrastructure.  This research has been launched this week in a special issue of the academic journal the International Journal of Water Resources Development.

In Africa, great reliance has been placed on irrigation to meet food security, and there are currently plans to significantly expand existing irrigation schemes as well as create new schemes.  Millions of dollars are being invested by aid donors and national governments for this purpose.

It is evident however, that existing irrigation schemes have largely failed to secure food supplies or reduce poverty, and are largely unsustainable.  This is a result of a complex range of problems; including access to input and output markets, transport, finance, farm implements and sound institutions, which mean that the irrigation systems are not profitable, are not being maintained and are chronically underutilized and/or abandoned.

Farmers have reverted to risk-averse, low-input, low-output farming on lands with expensive agricultural infrastructure.  Rebuilding the infrastructure does not address the underlying causes of poor performance, it will only result in the cycle starting up all over again.

Research case studies from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are used to detail the problems, opportunities and possible solutions.  They exemplify the institutional failures in the sector.  Six smallholder irrigation schemes were assessed:  from Mozambique, the Khanimambo and 25 de Setembro schemes; from Tanzania the Magozi and Kiwere schemes, and from Zimbabwe, the Mkoba and Silalatshani schemes.

The research focused on ‘rebooting’ these six irrigation schemes, that are home to over 5,000 farmers, through multiple interventions including facilitated stakeholder discussions to identify barriers and opportunities.  The outcome sought was an agreement on how to implement innovative solutions for more profitable farming.  The research also provided simple tools to farmers to enable them to measure soil water and fertility, and to develop their own more efficient farming practices.

The case studies found that:

  1. irrigation schemes are complex systems that require multiple, different and complementary interventions at various scales to become profitable and sustainable;
  2. key barriers are predominantly institutional;
  3. donors and governments need to invest in people’s skills, as much as hardware, to overcome barriers;
  4. governments need to clarify their objectives for smallholder irrigation schemes and develop appropriate business models to enable farmers;  and
  5. the development of improved market linkages is required to sustain more profitable and sustainable irrigation.

In a world with growing demand for food, and increasingly scarce water supplies, this research recommends major changes.  These changes will include:  policy reform around land tenure, policy reform around infrastructure ownership, and also around the legal and regulatory frameworks required to increase the productivity and profitability of small-scale communal irrigation systems.  The next step in the research will focus on how these interventions can be integrated into other scales of governance to transform more irrigation schemes across Africa.

The articles in this special issue focus on initial research findings from the project,  Increasing Irrigation Water Productivity in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through On-Farm Monitoring, Adaptive Management and Agricultural Innovation Platforms.  The project was led by the Australian National University and primarily supported by AUD 3.2 million in 2013–17 from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

The articles in this special issue on small scale irrigation include: an exploration of the profitability and productivity barriers and opportunities; case studies from each of the three countries; an overview of extension use; income inequality; a soil water and solute learning system; the theory and application of Agricultural Innovation Platforms; policy barriers and opportunities for enhanced productivity; and an overview article on findings on productivity and profitability.

The Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment & Society and the journal publishers Taylor and Francis are pleased to make this special issue The productivity and profitability of small scale communal irrigation systems in South-eastern Africa, immediately available as a free access document.