Water for Food

Irrigation offers huge potential to transform sub-Saharan Africa

April 24, 2016

“If you want a Green Revolution for Africa, you need to start with water,” Melissa Ho, of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, told attendees on the first day of the 2016 Global Water for Food Conference.

WFI, KickStart-International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in association with the Water, Land and Ecosystems Program of the CGIAR, co-sponsored a workshop on the benefits of and challenges to increasing irrigation for smallholder farmers in that region.

Irrigation has tremendous potential to increase crop yields, reduce poverty and improve health in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly one-third of the population still suffers from hunger, panelists agreed.

Though significant potential for irrigation exists, less than 5 percent of cultivated land is currently irrigated, several speakers noted. While challenges exist, that low rate speaks to the huge potential of irrigation to transform the region, said panelist Jeff Raikes, WFI board member and founder of the Raikes Foundation.

Kickstart CEO Martin Fisher said that irrigation is the best way to escape poverty. Irrigation, along with inputs, such as fertilizers, could increase income ten fold. The nonprofit organization and other groups have created markets for small-scale irrigation, such as pumps, but the region has far to go, he said.

The benefits of supporting irrigation extend beyond increased yields and income, added Claudia Ringler, of the International Food Policy Research Institute. Those benefits include improvements in disease, sanitation, nutrition and women’s empowerment.

But smallholder farmers and irrigation too often fall through the cracks, workshop participants concluded. Expanding irrigation requires a champion, an entity that can coordinate investments and other support among stakeholders, said Meredith Giordano, of the International Water Management Institute. Solutions must also address sustainability and avoid past mistakes.

Participants also emphasized that individual farmers, not governments, are investing in irrigation because they understand the benefits. Any solution must incorporate smallholder farmers and other private sector groups. Ultimately, it’s the profitability of farmers that will drive irrigation in Africa, said Pasquale Steduto, of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

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