Farmer-led irrigation in Africa: driving a new Green Revolution?

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A new open access review paper is just out in the Journal of Peasant Studies on farmer-led irrigation in Africa. The authors, led by Phil Woodhouse, define farmer-led irrigation development as “a process where farmers assume a driving role in improving their water use for agriculture by bringing about changes in knowledge production, technology use, investment patterns and market linkages, and the governance of land and water”. Covering a huge array of literature and many cases (although surprisingly very little from Zimbabwe), the paper offers a fantastically useful overview of the debate about what form of irrigation is most likely to support increases in smallholder production and livelihoods in Africa.

The paper in particular identifies furrow systems in mountainous areas, valley bottom/vlei systems, small-scale pumping from wells/open water, and peri-urban agriculture, as areas where farmer-led irrigation is important. All of these are important in Zimbabwe, whether the famous furrow systems of Inyanga, the ‘wetland in dryland’ vlei or dambo cultivation in the miombo zones, small-scale pump systems everywhere, and the massive growth of cultivation in and around towns and cities. Yet such forms of irrigation are often not acknowledged, nor counted in the statistics or supported by donor investments and government policy. This is of course not a new argument, but it’s one that has become more pertinent given the rise of small-scale, informal irrigation systems, with the decline of state support for formal schemes and the decline in costs of pumps in particular allowing informal systems to expand.

There was one statistic that really struck me in the paper, based on work by Beekman and colleagues in Mozambique. They estimate that over 115,000 ha are irrigated by farmers on a small scale. Accounting for this area, this would nearly double the national total irrigated area. Perhaps not to such an extent, but the total area irrigated in Zimbabwe is surely a gross underestimate too. This is a pattern increasingly seen by more detailed satellite-based estimates of irrigated areas globally. Estimates vary but there are approximately 150,000 hectares of irrigation land in Zimbabwe, mostly in large-scale schemes, including the sugar estates. The irrigation infrastructure in Zimbabwe, however, is in a sorry state, but people are compensating by digging boreholes or pumping from open water bodies directly. Earlier blogs and some of our films profiled ‘irrigation entrepreneurs’ operating small-scale farmer designed and managed irrigation systems, mostly for market-oriented horticultural production.

Our data from Mvurwi area in Mazowe district in 2014-15 showed that 34% of A1 households in our sample of 220 had pumps, with 0.44 on average being bought per household in the five years from 2010. Around 12% of households have irrigated plots on their main fields, while all households have gardens, either at the home or by a nearby river/stream. Even former farm workers living in compounds are buying pumps, as they branch out into farming (see earlier blogs), with 0.2 pumps on average bought per household in the same period. Pumps now cost only around $200 for a cheap Chinese make, and these can irrigate small gardens. Some are upgrading to larger engines, while others are expanding production areas through storage systems, and having a series of pumps. The extent of such irrigated areas is not known, but just taking our study areas in Mazowe, Masvingo and Matobo districts, my estimate is that it’s considerable.

The JPS paper highlights five characteristics of farmers’ investment in irrigation. They all apply in Zimbabwe, and each has important policy implications.

  1. Farmers invest substantially. Whether this is in new pumps or pipes or furrow systems in mountain areas or in vleis, irrigation requires investments of cash and labour. This is significant, and as we saw in our survey data from land reform areas in Zimbabwe, pumps in particular have become a priority investment, across social groups and geographical areas.
  2. Interactions among farmers, external agencies and the rural economy are crucial. Too often studies of irrigation focus just on the technology, but not on the interactions required and generated. In Zimbabwe, most new irrigation is spontaneous, independent of the state, NGOs and projects. But connections with the rural economy are important. There is a whole new set of businesses emerging for selling, maintaining and repairing pumps. And the production generated from new irrigation is transforming markets, as we showed in our earlier work, highlighted in our SMEAD films.
  3. Innovation occurs in broad socio-technical networks and complex agricultural systems. The classic engineering approach to irrigation focuses on flat areas, large water supplies and fixed technology. This is the form of standard irrigation schemes. But farmer-led irrigation manages water in different ways, making use of water within a landscape. Slopes, pits, valley bottoms and so on all become significant in maximising irrigation potential. The late Zephaniah Phiri was perhaps the most famous of Zimbabwe’s farmer irrigators, and was a master of harvesting water in landscapes. Technologies – in Mr Phiri’s case, a combination of pits, check dams, pumps and contour ridges – are constructed in a social context, and must always be seen as ‘socio-technologies’, part of ‘networks’, as the paper suggests.
  4. Formal land tenure is not a prerequisite for irrigation development. As discussed many times on this blog, ‘formal land tenure’ (such as freehold or leasehold) is not a prerequisite for investment in farming, including irrigation. This is especially so with mobile, flexible irrigation. Communal tenure or the permit/offer letter system found in A1 areas is not a constraint, as we have seen. This seems to be the case across Africa too, as the paper shows.
  5. Many benefit, but others are adversely affected. Highlighting the benefits of farmer-led irrigation must be tempered by an assessment of who wins and who loses. As discussed in respect of the new pump based irrigation systems in Masvingo, downstream impacts can be severe, and second-generation challenges of water management are emerging. The investors in these new irrigation systems are usually men (able to buy the pumps) and the losers may be women and other family members, who often have to supply the labour (a theme largely ignored in the review). Gluts of production are common in such systems too, so those surviving along market chains may be affected. As the paper argues, an overall assessment is necessary, but the benefits are significant – and underestimated.

There is a much-repeated narrative about Africa’s agriculture – that it missed out on the ‘Green Revolution’ due to the lack of irrigation. The comparison with Asia is always made, where approximately 20 per cent of land is irrigated, while in Africa it is supposed to be less than 4 per cent. As discussed above, this contrast is probably not accurate, and far more land is already being irrigated in Africa, but through different systems. Because of rainfall, topography, markets and a host of other factors, Africa and Asia are never going to be the same, and such comparisons are often rather futile. But nevertheless, we should learn more about what is happening with water and agriculture on the ground in Africa. This paper identifies farmer-led irrigation as an important trend, and one that may well be driving an unnoticed Green Revolution in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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