In Africa, most government-run irrigation schemes have failed or are significantly under-performing, for a complex array of reasons. However, our initial research (ACIAR FSC/2013/006) in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe found that agricultural innovation platforms (AIPs) combined with soil moisture and nutrient measuring had significant, positive impacts at each of the focal irrigation schemes, notably:

  • Crop yields are reported to have increased for 77 to 93% of households;
  • Farm income are reported to have increased for 21 to 83% of households, whereas off-farm income is now better for 39 to 60% of households;
  • Households now spend more on farming (61-73%), education (42-68%) and food (36-72%);
  • Between 50 and 88% of households have reduced the frequency and duration of irrigation events, saving between 3 and 19 hours of labour per irrigation event, see Figure 2;
  • Between 50 and 68% of households believe it is now easier to purchase inputs (e.g. seeds and farm chemicals);
  • Between 18 to 90% of households report improved prices for their main crop;
  • Between 44 and 90% of households reported reduced conflicts over financial resources within household and over access to water between irrigators;
  • There were positive changes in women’s role in decision-making with a significant increase in joint decision-making and some increase in female decision making;
  • Critically for sustainability of the irrigation schemes, between 87 and 100% of households participate more in scheme maintenance, 64 to 100% are more willing to pay for water, 69 to 99% are more able to pay for water, and 70 to 87% perceive that the process of water allocation and use is fairer.

These improved yields, profits and problem solving were achieved before infrastructure investments were made in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, thereby strengthening the likely benefit and sustainability of future infrastructure investments. The project enabled smallholder farmers and related stakeholders to achieve success in a traditionally difficult sector, which is also currently a top priority for African governments and international donors.

Our current TISA research project is testing how best to spread those findings beyond individual irrigation schemes to many other schemes and countries.


The project aims to improve farmer livelihoods, equity and community management in smallholder irrigation schemes in southern Africa. Consequently, the objectives are to:

  1. determine how the package of AIPs and simple tools for water management can best be scaled up and out,
  2. identify what institutions lead to inequity among farmers in water supply and economic benefit from irrigation, schemes, and how this inequity can be reduced,
  3. develop irrigation policy options for governments and multilateral agencies, so that smallholder schemes can be more profitable, equitable and self-sustaining.

Likely impacts

We anticipate that we will work with at least 38 irrigation schemes, supporting over 15,000 smallholder irrigator households in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe respectively. We expect that the research will result in outcomes at different scales:

  • Irrigation communities becoming more profitable and self-sustaining as a result of individual and social learning, and institutional and technological change. This will result from:
  • farmers mindsets changing from subsistence to market-oriented practices and choosing more profitable crops with more reliable markets;
  • better access to cheaper and higher quality farming inputs;
  • more efficient use of water and fertilisers resulting in greater crop yields;
  • reduced social conflicts;
  • savings in irrigation labour directed to other livelihood activities;
  • more effective farmer organisations;
  • farmers being willing to pay sufficient water fees and provide labour to maintain infrastructure; and
  • greater demand on governments to support the irrigation sector’s needs. Some expansion of irrigated cropping is expected as water is used more efficiently.
  • Extension and support staff facilitating AIPs and supporting the development of district-scale agricultural service providers and markets.
  • Governments applying project findings to provide answers on how best to meet their key irrigation policy targets.
  • Partnerships with the private sector leading to more vibrant local economies, as all value chain stakeholders benefit from increases in agro-economic activities.
  • An evaluation of the extent smallholder farmer adaptation gains comprising increased production, increased resilience, and reduced emissions are “climate smart,” in the face of high climate variability.

The research will conclude in 2023.