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As technologies such as solar-powered pumps become cheaper and more accessible, smallholders across the Global South are gradually expanding their irrigated land. This farmer-led irrigation (FLI), whereby farmers drive the establishment, management and improvement of irrigated agriculture, has the potential to transform food and water security, enhance resilience to climate change and promote sustainable livelihoods. But with a long way to go to achieve global development goals, how can FLI be scaled up to realize its potential?

Experts: new thinking and approaches needed to scale up farmer-led irrigation
This home garden is part of a conservation agriculture trial that is being run in partnership with IWMI, Bahir Dar University, and the Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation (ILSSI). Photo by Mulugeta Ayene/WLE.

Implementers – including practitioners, government representatives, private sector actors and donors – were invited to discuss and share possible answers to this question during a World Water Week online session.

The session built on a webinar series aimed at stimulating debate on FLI. Convened by IWMI, the Water Global Practice of the World Bank, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, the Global Water Partnership and the Water Youth Network, it sought to identify key actions at different scales to take sustainable and inclusive FLI development forward.

“There are fundamental questions on whether and how to drive this form of development,” said Pieter Waalewijn, senior water resources management and irrigation specialist with the World Bank. “Governments, financial institutions, NGOs and irrigation practitioners have to unlearn and rethink approaches and reflect on the role they can play, while doing no harm, supporting and not putting the brakes on farmers’ creativity and problem-solving.”

More attention needed at the policy level

The Framework for Irrigation Development and Agricultural Water Management in Africa, published in June 2020 by the African Union, identifies expansion of FLI as a key pathway to agricultural water management development across the continent. However, member states need support to design and implement policies that enable FLI to flourish.

“FLI is a fast-growing sector and should be supported by governments – by ensuring that water abstraction can be done in a lawful manner and that farmers have secured water and land rights, or that access to urban markets and peri-urban agriculture are promoted,” said Mure Agbonlahor, senior agricultural production and marketing officer at the African Union Commission. 

“Policies are really important, and not just agricultural policies but also, for example, trade policies and those supporting extension services,” added Stéphane Lako, head of the irrigation and drainage division at the Cameroonian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Revisions of trade or fiscal policies could be central to facilitating access to affordable technologies. In Cameroon, for example, irrigation equipment is not recognized as agricultural equipment and thus not eligible for tariff exemptions.

Irrigation technologies and services must match farmers’ needs

Beyond policy revisions, irrigation technologies and services offered by suppliers must match farmers’ needs and challenges. This point was underlined by Onyaole Patience Koku, herself a farmer in Nigeria and a member of the Global Farmer Network.

Suitability is particularly important when it comes to solutions that increase the accessibility and affordability of irrigation technologies. Toby Hammond, managing director of Futurepump, explained that in Kenya, the price of irrigation systems is the main problem.

“Futurepump launched an entry-level pump that starts at USD 330, but this is still a large sum of money for many. As a manufacturer, we are trying to drive down the costs to help.” He added that these efforts have been set back by a recent loss of VAT exemption that has pushed up the price of the pumps by 14%.

Manufacturing is only one link in the chain. Leaner distribution routes and appropriate financial mechanisms that help get the technologies into farmers’ hands are also required.

New financing mechanisms hold promise

Traditional financing models are generally limited to micro-financing or bank loans, which are often out of reach of smallholders with limited resources and/or no credit history. A recent development in this area is financing provided by equipment suppliers themselves. Although this mechanism can be profitable for suppliers, it is not without risks.

Richard Colback, agribusiness water specialist at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), presented blended finance as a promising alternative. This uses relatively small amounts of (public) donor funds to mitigate specific investment risk, allowing private actors to pioneer new business models or innovations that have the potential for commercialization over time. However, care is required, he noted: the intervention must not distort the market, there must be an economic rationale and the private sector should not be crowded out by the intervention.

“IFC has put USD 1.2 billion out in blended finance over the past 10 years. The blended funds are used to test a proof of concept and/or to provide guarantees to the banks, e.g., cover potential losses in exchange for lower interest rates for farmers. This is to prove that the market makes sense. It is a really disciplined approach – to use small amounts of money to take some of the risk off the table, to try and do things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

Subsidies could also be an option, particularly when targeted to reach specific groups. In Cameroon, several projects provide partial subsidies, supporting farmers while ensuring they continue to lead irrigation development. Subsidy schemes entail risk too; notably the risk of capture by wealthier and better-connected farmers. As such, these schemes need to be “smart”, as Toby Hammond put it, and “very well designed and carefully thought through.”

Approaches must be holistic

In terms of engaging and connecting public and private sector actors, there was consensus among implementers that holistic approaches are needed to tackle challenges in the whole irrigation supply chain. These include providing financing for smallholders and bolstering output markets and agricultural value chains.

“We realize that to make that investment sustainable, we need to go upstream and downstream. This includes, for example, making equipment and inputs accessible to producers, making sure that they have the technical capacity to use it as well as engaging downstream in the value chains,” said Colback.

Equal access to irrigation is key

Ensuring that women and other marginalized groups have equal access to irrigation was a significant topic of discussion. Gender equity and social inclusion requires that gender be mainstreamed in policies supporting FLI development, that customer profiles of the most vulnerable are understood and that the success of tailored finance modalities or subsidies targeting the most vulnerable are evaluated.

Scaling up FLI will require not only holistic approaches but also strong partnerships between implementing partners, given that each plays a distinct role in facilitating access to irrigation and supporting the enabling environment. A combination of multi-stakeholder dialogues to overcome systemic barriers and an intentional network that brings the FLI community together to share experiences and ideas could be the answer.

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