Small-scale farms, those less than 2 hectares, account for 11% of the world's agricultural land, yet they produce 35% of the world’s food.1 Most of these smallholder farmers have relied on rain for production. However, rainfed agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. As smallholder farmers are most affected by a lack of rain caused by climate change, small and local entrepreneurs are the unsung heroes in helping farmers increase their production and filling the global food gap.
Saratiel Sapu is an entrepreneur who is bringing water to farmers in Nyagatare district in the eastern province of Rwanda. Nyagatare district is known for its fertile soils and cattle breeding. Therefore it has a lot of farmers; however, it is also one of the driest regions in Rwanda.
Sapu did not start as an entrepreneur who was solving a problem in his area. He started as a farmer who was looking for a solution for his own wilting maize. He bought two irrigation kits (two small diesel pumps and two pipes) through the government’s Small-Scale Irrigation Technology (SSIT) subsidy program, to draw water from a stream to his field. His innovation was that he could get water over a long distance to his field by connecting the two pumps.
When other farmers in the area noticed that it was possible to bring water from such a distance to the farm, they started approaching him to provide water for them for their crops and for livestock as well.
Sapu currently is using 10 irrigation kits (10 pumps and their pipes), and he says that there is very high demand, even more than he can supply. Though he acquired his first equipment through SSIT, the rest he bought at full price because they were for business.
Even though Sapu could afford the upfront cost on his pumps, many smallholders cannot afford the cost of a pump, even through SSIT. However, they can afford to rent the irrigation kit from Sapu to irrigate their crops.
Other smallholders we talked to can afford to buy the irrigation equipment but prefer using Sapu’s service. They told us that it is cheaper for them to rent than buy the kits, especially if they must buy more than one pump. This is often the case for many farmers whose fields are located at least 0.25 mi (400m) from a water body.
In addition to providing irrigation water for crops, Sapu also provides drinking water for livestock. Livestock farmers in Nyagatare are challenged by cows dying during drought or contracting diseases from exposure to other animals at shared water sources. In this case, Sapu connects multiple pumps to get water into a dam sheet located at the customer’s farm, and a full dam sheet lasts the cows for the whole dry season.
He also said that the main challenge he is facing in this business is the quality of the pipes. The pipes currently on the market have low quality and they easily get holes. This required another innovation. Sapu extends his pipes’ lifespan by using very damaged ones to patch up the less damaged pipes. The pipes with the most patches are then used in situations where they won’t have to be constantly moved. For example, Sapu will rent a patched pipe to a farmer far from the water to use as a stationary pipe, which simply lies on the ground.
Supporting entrepreneurs like Sapu who are servicing smallholders can increase the adoption of irrigation and tackle smallholders’ lack of finance to purchase irrigation equipment. Learn more about entrepreneur-to-farmer irrigation services by reading the report Current state of irrigation-as-a-service in Rwanda.
1 Cavatassi, Romina & Ruben, Ruerd & Smaling, Eric & Lipper, Leslie & Piters, Bart & Guijt, Joost & Van Berkum, Siemen & Woodhill, Jim. (2021). Transforming Food Systems for Rural Prosperity. https://www.ifad.org/documents/38714170/43704363/rdr2021.pdf/d3c85b6a-229a-c6f1-75e2-a67bb8b505b2?t=1631621454882