When it comes to food and water security, in addition to building large centrally managed irrigation infrastructure projects, it’s important to help smallholder farmers make decisions on personal investments in irrigation, including the design, purchase, and installation of irrigation systems. This is what’s called “farmer-led irrigation,” when farmers drive the establishment, improvement, or expansion of irrigated agriculture. Farmer-led irrigation requires a robust entrepreneurial network of supporting businesses that can provide irrigation equipment and services, installation and training, repairs and spare parts, seeds and fertilizers, transportation, and financing. Fostering this type of entrepreneurship can help raise incomes and create a productive middle class—long-term goals of many stakeholders in sub-Saharan Africa.
DWFI has been doing extensive work in this area, expanding the focus beyond just farmers to encompass the surrounding irrigation entrepreneurial ecosystem. The team is working to build capacity and support local entrepreneurs who benefit from irrigation in addition to farmers (including equipment retailers, maintenance shops, micro-finance institutions and others).
In December 2020, an interdisciplinary DWFI-led team based in Kigali, Rwanda, received a three-year $1 million grant from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to support smallholder farmer irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa by analyzing, testing, and scaling up innovative irrigation business models. The grant focuses on six countries, and work began last year in Rwanda.
In addition to conducting discovery interviews, the team developed educational content and workshops and tested workflows that will be used in the ongoing project. One of the products of the work is a “Rwanda smallholder irrigation ecosystem map” that stakeholders can use to identify customers, suppliers, partners, investors, donors and others—as well as identify gaps and opportunities for everyone involved. The team’s ecosystem mapping process and the interview model will be presented at DWFI’s Water for Food Global Forum, a virtual interactive series in October 2021.
Nebraska is especially well-positioned to leverage its irrigation expertise and strengths to help scale up agricultural capacity and efficiency for global food and water security in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Because of the work’s potential to significantly benefit many regions and citizens of the world, it is strongly supported by many, including U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a notable champion of linking international food security and development initiatives.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) has already been working for years as an academic partner in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Rwanda. The new effort will use insights and existing relationships from previous work to expand and improve local capacity-building. The team–most of whom are graduates from UNL’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Undergraduate Scholarship Program (CUSP) and former DWFI interns–were onboarded last year and began conducting in-country research to help them frame key issues and understand the irrigation ecosystem. Going forward, the team will identify, analyze, and propose private-sector-linked business models for irrigation equipment and service provision to smallholder farmers and facilitate entrepreneurship pilot programs.
Pandemic challenges, including travel restrictions, at first appeared to be roadblocks for this international research, but the team discovered unplanned benefits of having to work remotely for international research (Read more about the effects of COVID-19). The researchers plan to use online tools in new ways to reach a more-diverse, more-extensive audience going forward.
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