Ethiopian smallholders benefit from groundwater access

Ethiopia is often referred to as the “roof of Africa,” because its extensive highlands capture a major portion of the continent’s precipitation. However, despite the abundance of water in the highlands, most smallholders in Ethiopia’s lowlands face significant challenges in affordably accessing water. Considerable time and effort is spent in collecting drinking water, while water for irrigation remains an impossible dream.

Simple well drilling in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian manual well drilling crew. Photo: iDE Ethiopia

Without irrigation water, farmers are forced to rely on erratic and often insufficient rainfall to grow low-value crops, which leaves very few opportunities to escape poverty.

Water wells, which are manually drilled, could provide a key part of a solution to this problem. However, while manual well drilling is well established and highly developed in many Asian countries, it is not widely available in Ethiopia or in some other parts of Africa. Pilot efforts by the nongovernmental organization (NGO), iDE, to establish private-sector well drilling demonstrated high potential and high demand among farmers for manually drilled wells.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) analyzed iDE’s efforts as part of the AgWater Solutions Project, and identified manual well drilling as one investment option and opportunity to improve incomes and food security of poor farmers. The synthesis of the manual well drilling business model was recently published as an IWMI Working Paper, Manual well drilling investment opportunity in Ethiopia.


IWMI’s Anna Deinhard spoke to Robert Yoder, formerly Director for Technology, iDE, about the project and the potential for manual well drilling in Ethiopia.


Anna: What was the status of well drilling in Ethiopia before you started to implement your project?

Robert: Our initial idea was to find ways for farmers, who are really at the very low end of the economically active farming community, to shift part of their agricultural production from rain-fed farming to irrigated agriculture and to high-value crops for markets. We have had success with this in different parts of Asia, but not so much in Africa. Since water is scarce, we wanted to introduce water-saving technologies such as drip irrigation, but it became very clear when we started out that access to water was probably the biggest problem.

In our programs in Asia, access to water was something the farmer took care of. If you go almost anywhere in the outwash part of the Ganges Basin in Bangladesh, Nepal and India, groundwater is not very deep and the soil is ideal for drilling wells. Manual well drilling is a local craft and almost every village has a well driller.

We discovered that this craft was totally missing in Ethiopia. So, we looked for ways to access shallow groundwater for irrigation. We started looking at both well digging and well drilling, but soon concluded that drilling really was the way to go and introduced a training program.


Anna: What was so unique about the approach you chose?

Robert: Through our iDE program in Nepal, we engaged a very knowledgeable Nepali well driller and made him come to Ethiopia for a month. He did test drillings in different areas using his techniques from Nepal. During that month he drilled 15 wells. Eight of the drillings were successful and in the others he hit stone which he could not penetrate. When manual drilling you can’t drill through hard rock. From the test drilling we concluded that, if the sites were selected carefully, and if our information and maps of groundwater areas are good, then this technology is, indeed, feasible. We followed the test drilling by mapping areas that could potentially work for drilling and did a groundwater assessment.

Thanks to the groundwater maps and the test drilling, we could pick locations with a high probability of drilling success.


Anna: What were the challenges you were facing?

Robert: We started several very intensive trainings for well drillers. We hired one Ethiopian well driller who already had training and experience to supervise the training of new drillers.

In total, several hundred have participated in the training, but manual drilling is really hard work and a lot of people just don’t want to work that hard and dropped out.

Also, it turned out that not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and run a drilling team. Some are happy just be told what to do and work as laborers and helpers, and those people are also very much needed in the drilling profession. However, what we were looking for were people who could lead teams, find and employ their own helpers and work independently to drill wells for farmers, the community or for whoever that needed a well. Now, iDE has about 20 manual well drillers in Ethiopia, who are certified for leading drilling teams. Also, many others who were trained are working as helpers.


Anna: How did the farmers in the pilot areas respond to the well drilling?

Robert: Initially, the farmers were very reluctant to pay the equivalent of about USD 125 to drill a well and install a pump, because they had never seen this technology. They were uncertain if it would work and it was also a lot of money for a farmer.

However, the demand is increasing now and the drilling teams are fully engaged. So, the expectation is that the drilling will continue and that more drillers will pick up the profession. That was the goal and that seems to be happening.


Anna: What are, in your view, the enabling factors to make well drilling a continued success?

Robert: If farmers are able to make money by using water from drilled wells for irrigation then there will definitely be a demand for more wells. My expectations are that the demand from farmers, who are wealthier than those iDE is working with in its project, will also grow. We have been addressing the poorest farmers and that’s what iDE will continue to do.

As well drillers experience increasing demand and are able to make reasonable profit, drilling will become a business that will appeal to a lot of people. Over 1,000 wells have been drilled for smallholders in Ethiopia so far and the success rate has improved to over 80%.

[hr top=”yes”/] Weight, E.; Yoder, R.; Keller, A. 2013. Manual well drilling investment opportunity in Ethiopia. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI). 25p. (IWMI Working Paper 155)