Transforming the land through local empowerment: the story of smallholder irrigation schemes in Africa

Across Africa, the development of irrigation schemes farmed by local smallholders is promoted by donors and governments as a way of reducing poverty, increasing food security and promoting economic growth. Despite huge capital investments in the schemes to access high quality land and water, many such schemes have performed poorly. Crop yields have been little higher than from dry land fields, trapping farmers in poverty, and consequential scheme infrastructure breakdown. Leading to calls for scheme ‘revitalisation’, ‘reoperation’ or ‘rehabilitation’, and generally, another round of donation or costly government-funded repairs to failed infrastructure that is destined to fail again.

For four years, ANU and country partners conducted research at six irrigation schemes in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, intervening with two farmer-led measures called the ‘Chameleon’ and ‘Full Stop’. These were designed to enable farmers to learn, measure and manage their own soil fertility and moisture. A social process, Agricultural Innovation Platforms (AIPs) enabled farmers to articulate and prioritise actions. Through this process, farmers then used this new knowledge and analysis to overcome barriers and seize opportunities to improve their livelihoods.

Positive Impacts
Analysis of a subsequent household survey we conducted, on the impact of this initial phase of the project identified significant, positive impacts at each of the irrigation schemes, notably:

  • Between 50 and 93% of households learned from the simple tools and changed practices.
  • Of these households, between 77 and 93% increased crop yields.
  • Farm income increased in 21 to 83% of households.
  • Households now spend more on: farming (61-73%), education (42-68%) and food (36-72%).
  • There was a reduction of conflict in 44 to 89% of households.
  • There were positive changes in gender roles and decision-making.

Key Discoveries
There are a number of key lessons. Irrigation schemes are complex systems that require effective institutional as well as infrastructural investment to be sustainable. Irrigation scheme infrastructure cannot be maintained unless the farming system is profitable, and this means growing the most valuable crops such as garlic and peanuts.

We argue that the usual ‘build – fail – rebuild’ cycle implemented by donors and government, focuses solely on infrastructure repair rather than enhancing the capacities of local people and institutions through investment. We contend that smallholder irrigation schemes are complex systems that only function profitably and sustainably when there is a substantial investment in the capacities of the farmers, their institutions and the formal and informal governing rules. Broken infrastructure is usually just a symptom of a failed socioeconomic and socioecological system.

We argue that no single intervention will make these irrigation schemes work; rather, multiple complementary interventions are needed for farmers to use their irrigation schemes to generate good livelihoods sustainably. The role of government officers therefore needs to change from (unsuccessfully) directing farmers, to facilitating innovation from within the farming community.

Next Steps
Following our proof of concept, we have proposed follow-on research to test how best to spread those findings beyond individual irrigation schemes to many other schemes and countries. This started in June 2017 and will conclude in 2021, and will assess: how the package of AIPs and simple tools for water management can best be scaled up and out; what institutions lead to inequity among farmers in water supply and economic benefit from irrigation, schemes, and how this inequity can be reduced; and develop irrigation policy options for governments and multilateral agencies, so that smallholder schemes can be more profitable, equitable and self-sustaining.

Explore Our Solutions
We have collated our understanding of what has worked to turn these schemes around. We present this knowledge in the form of a guide, Transforming smallholder irrigation schemes in Africa. A guide to help farmers become more profitable and sustainable.

The guide, provides a summary of our best advice on good practices needed for more sustainable irrigation. We have not attempted to describe the full range of positive interventions for sustainable irrigation schemes, but rather, report on those that we have tried and that have worked. The ideas described have been developed through the project Increasing irrigation water productivity in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through on-farm monitoring, adaptive management and agricultural innovation platforms that was largely funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (project FSC/2013/006).

The project research team consists of a partnership of seven organisations: the Australian National University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the University of South Australia, the National Institute for Irrigation in Mozambique, Ardhi University in Tanzania, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Zimbabwe, and the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Policy Analysis Network in South Africa.

Jamie Pittock Associate Professor, Australian National University