Note: This a featured session summary from the Proceedings of the 2019 Water for Food Global Conference that took place April 29-30, 2019 in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.
To support farmer-led irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa, we must work together and take an integrated, holistic approach — working in silos does not work. This was the main theme of the conference’s session on profitable and sustainable farmer-led agriculture led by moderator Montaha Hassan, associate operations officer of the International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group.
This is important because most of the world’s more than 570 million farms are small and family-run. Smallholder farms, those measured as less than 2 hectares, operate about 12% of the world’s agricultural land and most rely on rain for soil moisture.
Selamawit Damtew, a young World Bank Africa Fellow explained the multiple benefits of small-scale irrigation: crop diversification, higher incomes, better nutrition and reduced climate shocks. She said we must engage women and youth to provide them with more opportunities and integrate small-scale irrigation with other watershed management activities.
Jennie Barron, professor of water management in agricultural landscapes at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, continued the theme of irrigation integration. She said small-scale irrigation offers a low-cost way to use water efficiently compared to large-scale irrigation. Accessing water is a challenge, as is accessing better seeds and markets.
Petra Schmitter, research group leader of agricultural water management at the International Water Management Institute, offered two examples of potentially productive small-scale irrigation investments: rehabilitating and repurposing small reservoirs as multiple use water systems, and harnessing groundwater while using natural infrastructure to recharge aquifers.
Schmitter focused on the potential offered by solar power for irrigation and the need to design solutions that preserve the water resource, reduce upfront costs and enhance social inclusion. She described pilot studies underway that include both on- and off-grid solutions. India’s program enables farmers to sell power back to the grid, but the likely impact on groundwater levels remains unclear. In sub-Saharan Africa, off-grid solutions are a cost-effective way for farmers to access water, but managing the water resource will be a challenge. Schmitter said we must integrate multiple sectors to achieve sustainable solutions.
Ariana Constant, director of programs for the Clinton Development Initiative of the Clinton Foundation, shared smallholder farmer training experiences in Rwanda, Malawi and Tanzania. The program facilitates farmers forming cooperative groups and then trains them in agronomy and marketing. Constant emphasized four challenges: access to quality training, quality inputs, financing and markets. She explained that any effort to train and support farmers must include attention to soils, seeds, and access to warehouses as well as to irrigation – again emphasizing a holistic systems perspective.
Regassa Namara, senior water economist at World Bank Water Global Practice, focused on the enormous irrigation potential in sub-Saharan Africa and the critical role farmer-led irrigation can play. World Bank is partnering with multiple institutions, including DWFI, and trying to learn from experiences in India and China. According to Namara, the World Bank is following two tracks: knowledge sharing and advocacy to make farmer-led irrigation development more acceptable to African policymakers, and mainstreaming farmer-led irrigation in its own investment pipeline. He said the World Bank is focused on making financing more easily available, reducing transport costs and improving access to technical training to scale-up successful smallholder farming operations.
Rob Bertram, chief scientist in USAID’s Bureau for Food Security, explained that USAID is reorganizing itself to integrate its agriculture work including irrigation, nutrition, water and sanitation and increasing resilience. Farmer-led irrigation development is water-knowledge- and employment-intensive: If we get it right, he said, it can help reduce poverty and improve nutrition. Bertram emphasized the potential in the “hinterlands”: Solar pumps for irrigation and livestock water can be a “leapfrogging technology.” As Bertram put it, “Even some water can be transformative.” But we must do this sustainably and not “blow it,” he said. Simply distributing solar panels without understanding socioeconomic drivers, behavior change and finance could lead to disaster.
View a full video recording of this session on YouTube.
Moderator: Montaha Hassan,Associate Operations Officer, International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group
- Jennie Barron, Professor of Water Management in Agricultural Landscapes, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
- Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist, Bureau for Food Security, USAID
- Ariana Constant, Director of Programs, Clinton Development Initiative, Clinton Foundation
- Selamawit Damtew, World Bank, Africa Fellow
- Regassa Ensermu Namara, Senior Water Economist, World Bank Water Global Practice
- Petra Schmitter, Research Group Leader, Agricultural Water Management, International Water Management Institute