The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Transforming small-scale irrigation systems from underperformance to sustainability

irrigation systems

A partnership of seven organisations from Australia and Africa developed a theory of change to address complex challenges and transition underperforming irrigation systems to sustainable systems by transforming the small-scale farmers to profitable farm businesses.

plant - african irrigation systemsAbout 80% of food in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is produced by small-scale farmers. Some of these are within small-scale irrigation schemes, which are managed by irrigator associations or irrigator/government partnerships. These associations are essentially not-for-profit social enterprises, which are responsible for the operation and maintenance of the irrigation infrastructure. However, small-scale schemes have largely failed due to a range of challenges: requirements to grow low-value staple crops; exposures to crop failure; poor connections to input and output markets; and resulting high production costs. Consequently, farmers have been unable to pay water fees and had limited incentive to participate in scheme maintenance. Hence, schemes fell into disrepair, water supply became uncertain, and plots were underutilised.

african farmerThe small-scale irrigators and their associations have limited capacity to address these challenges. Traditionally, governments, donors, and NGOs have responded by refurbishing or rehabilitating schemes without considering the broader and complex socio-economic context and the fundamental need for schemes to be profitable. Hence, many schemes have entered a cycle of refurbishment-degradation-refurbishment.

Drawing on learning and development research, a partnership of seven organisations from Australia and Africa developed a theory of change to address these complex challenges and transition underperforming irrigation systems to sustainable systems by transforming the small-scale farmers to profitable farm businesses (for a thorough overview, see volumes 33 and 36 of the International Journal of Water Resources Development). The theory of change has been tested through the project ‘Transforming Irrigation in Southern Africa’ (TISA), which uses a two-pronged intervention approach: Agricultural Innovation Platforms (AIPs) and soil and nutrient monitoring tools (Figure 1). The project partnered with farmers, irrigator associations, extension officers, local stakeholders and local, district and national government institutions. It worked initially with six irrigation schemes in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe (2013-17). Based on the success of the approach, it was out-scaled (2017-22), and now works with 15,500 farm businesses and 42 associations and has up-scaled to the regional and national levels.

TISA approach

The AIPs function as spaces for innovation and learning. A facilitated process brings key stakeholders together to identify a vision for each scheme and the barriers to achieving the vision, including poor yields and profitability. Stakeholders then determine the best strategy to overcome the barriers and which stakeholders are willing to and most capable of implementing the strategy. Importantly, farmers are empowered in the process, and networks are built for knowledge sharing. The following are examples of AIP-initiated projects that have resulted in increased profitability:

  1. Introduction, and demonstration in test plots, of new crops and varieties: e.g. in Tanzania, new rice varieties and planting densities were introduced, and agreement was obtained between the farmers to grow fewer varieties to facilitate bulk sales.
  2. Introduction of farmers field books for farmers to record field operations, readings from the tools, yields, input purchases and revenue. At the end of the season, farmers then learnt how to compute gross margins.
  3. Connecting farmers to markets for cheaper and better-quality inputs and better prices for outputs: e.g. in Mozambique an agricultural supplier established a mobile shop to visit the schemes and in Tanzania, the local council hired an inspector to test the quality of inputs sold by the main suppliers.
  4. Participatory mapping of the schemes. This clearly and publicly established the location and size of farmers’ plots, reducing conflicts over water, and increasing the willingness to pay fees and undertake maintenance work. In Tanzania, the mapping enabled the issuing of certificates of customary ownership, which banks have accepted as collateral for finance.
  5. Facilitating collaboration between farmers and governments and NGOs to fund value-adding facilities: e.g. in Zimbabwe an NGO donated an oil press and seed/bean packaging machine, and governments and farmers jointly built a rice storage facility and a rice mill in Tanzania.

Chameleon readerA common barrier identified across the schemes was poor water management and low crop productivity. As schemes supply water on a fixed roster, irrigators water when water is supplied, whether it is needed or not. This causes leaching of fertiliser and reduces crop yields. Hence, soil and nutrient monitoring tools were introduced to facilitate farmer learning about soil moisture and nutrient dynamics for improved irrigation decision-making.

The farmers received two easy-to-use tools, which provided results that could be easily understood by semi-literate farmers:

i) Chameleon™ Soil Water reader and an array with three sensors to measure soil tension, i.e. how hard the roots have to suck to extract moisture (Figure 2); and

ii) FullStop™ Wetting Front Detector (WFD) to measure soil nitrate and salt levels (Figure 3).

placement of full stop devicesTwenty farmers in each scheme installed a sensor array and two WFDs in their plots, and they shared one reader. The sensors were buried in the ground in the top, middle and bottom of the root zone. An above-ground plug connects them to the reader, which has a coloured light for each sensor with:

  • blue indicating wet soil;
  • green indicating moist soil; and
  • red indicating dry soil.

The WFDs are buried at approximately one-third and two-thirds of the depth of the crop’s rootzone (Figure 3). As water moves down the soil profile, it is funnelled into one or both devices. When sufficient moisture enters the device, the indicator at ground level rises. This informs the farmer that a water sample has been captured, which can be extracted using a tube and syringe and tested for nitrates and salinity.

The tools enabled farmers to avoid water stress, waterlogging and fertiliser leaching. Farmers quickly discovered that when the Chameleon™ was constantly blue in the rootzone then the soil-water extracted from the deepest WFD had high levels of nitrates. They learnt that they had overwatered and lost expensive fertiliser, as it was now inaccessible to the plants. Within six months, farmers had significantly reduced the number and duration of irrigation events, whilst yields increased and learning spread. After nine years, up to 90% of farmers have changed their irrigation practices even though only twenty farmers per scheme were initially given the tools. Critically, the yield improvements would not have translated to increased income without the market-oriented outcomes and learning facilitated by the AIP.

The two-pronged approach has initiated an iterative virtuous cycle of development, transforming small-scale farmers into sustainable farm businesses (Figure 4). The approach has reduced water use, the time spent irrigating, and conflicts over water among farmers, within households and with downstream users. Yields, farm profitability and non-farm incomes have all increased. In turn, farmers’ willingness and ability to pay water fees has increased and they are participating more in scheme maintenance. This has created viable irrigator associations and more sustainable irrigation systems.

cycle of production and income for TISA scheme

TISA has identified significant opportunities—for African governments, donors, and NGOs—to address the challenges facing small-scale irrigation schemes. Only by accepting the complex nature of these challenges, and facilitating a shared vision and collective problem-solving coupled with farmer-centred learning about irrigation management, can farms become profitable and able to support the development of self-sustaining irrigation systems.

Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research & University of South Australia (UniSA) & Australian National University & International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics won a Gold Award in the 2022 Excellence in Practice Awards Ecosystem Development category. Learn more about the awards and apply for 2023 here

See other articles from Excellence in Practice 2022.

Transforming small-scale irrigation systems from underperformance to sustainability

Stay connected
Search Global Focus
Subscribe to the
Global Focus Newsletter