Ag Research: Expect Higher Returns From Small-Scale Irrigation

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Small-scale, private agricultural water management is far more prevalent – and profitable – in Africa than has been recognized or documented before, according to a report in TheGuardian.

A survey by International Water Management Institute showed that many smallholder farmers are taking the lead and investing in their own low-cost, small-scale irrigation systems.

A survey as part of the institute’s AgWater Solutions project revealed a growing trend for individual and community-owned agricultural water management systems. In Ghana, for example, small private irrigation schemes were found to cover 25 times more land than public irrigation schemes.

Far from being dry, Africa has abundant water resources underscored by the recent discovery of a large aquifer in KenyaTheGuardian reports.

The problem for farmers is access. Just 6 percent of cultivated land is equipped for irrigation, leaving millions dependent on rain.

Large-scale, government-funded irrigation systems have long attempted to address this, with varying degrees of success.

Supporting smallholder irrigation through finance and technical assistance could significantly improve productivity and incomes, according to TheGuardian.

Funding for the AgWater Solutions project came from the Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationFAO and Stockholm Environment Institute. The study suggests supporting smallholder irrigation could have a significant impact on productivity and incomes.

In Zambia, for example, it found that smallholders who grew vegetables in the dry season earned 35 percent more than those who did not. Small-scale irrigation methods included pumps and on-farm ponds which are relatively cheap. Being freed from rain dependence allowed farmers to grow crops year-round, and to grow more high-value crops.

The International Food Policy Research Institute said in a report on irrigation potential of Africa that greater returns could be expected from investing in small-scale agriculture than in large-scale, dam-based systems. The internal rate of return for large irrigation projects was found to be 7 percent, but for small-scale irrigation it was 28 percent “because there is still so much un-irrigated arable land located away from any large irrigation infrastructure.”

“With small-scale irrigation the initial cost is lower,” said Liangzhi You, senior scientist at food policy institute and co-author of the report. “A lot of government agencies and even donor communities like big projects, but if you look at the returns, small-scale actually gives higher returns, and from my own research I think small-scale irrigation is the future in the African context.”