Learning from a joint venture gone astray

Farmer empowerment is vital if new technologies are to help the poorest.

Farmer empowerment is vital if new technologies are to help the poorest

Traditionally irrigation sprinklers are made from metal piping. Given that they need to be both watertight and hardwearing, this makes good sense. But metal sprinklers are relatively expensive to make and heavy to maneuver. In South Africa, where water resources are stretched and many farmers are still at subsistence levels, technologists decided that a new approach was needed.

If a high pressure hose is turned on, and no-one is controlling it, it snakes about all over the place powered simply by the pressure of the water. A team of irrigation engineers worked out that, if this effect could be harnessed and made more controllable, then it could be used to make a “floppy sprinkler” – and so a new approach to irrigation was born. From an overhead lattice, small flexible hoses flip about, distributing water in a regulated pattern. First trialed in the late 1980s, the makers of the wobbly water system claim it is both cost effective and efficient. On paper, then, it seems to have great potential for smallholder farmers with limited incomes in water scarce areas, for whom improved irrigation could greatly boost their productivity.

However a new study recently published in the journal Physics and Chemistry of the Earth suggests that unless farmers are active stakeholders in rolling out new floppy technology, it is unlikely to be any more successful than other similar approaches.

“Floppy irrigation may have some advantages,” says IWMI’s Everisto Mapedza, the lead author of the study. “But it is complex to install and is not as water efficient as some other methods. For farmers with small fields its applicability is questionable. Furthermore, without an inclusive approach to it implementation, it is unlikely to deliver improvements in farmer incomes.”

floppy irrigation
Photo: Barbara van Koppen


A joint venture?

The researchers studied so-called Joint Venture Schemes (JVS) which used the floppy irrigation technology in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Based around two sites, Mogalatsane and Setlaboswane, they interviewed nearly 50 farmers and other local stakeholders as well as assessing other available data. The JVS program had been set up to address post-apartheid land inequalities. It was designed to help smallholder farmers by hooking them up with commercial knowhow and resources, including a range of irrigation technologies. However the researchers argue that the joint venture partnership created a new injustice. Farmers signing up to the scheme had to surrender all of their water access and land rights. This was in part because the agricultural department’s choice to use the ‘efficient’ floppy irrigation technology meant that land had to be managed as a single unit. In return the farmers got a profit share, in partnership with a commercial farmer, of any crops that were grown.

Results were disappointing. Initially it was hoped that improving agriculture would help address unemployment. Planners believed that for every R1 million (about USD100,000) invested, up to 50 jobs could be created. Over a three year period, the Limpopo Department of Agriculture allocated R248 million (about USD 2,500,000) to the scheme but this delivered only 50 part time jobs.

Relations with the commercial farmers were problematic. Very little training took place, and at one site at the end of the first season, the commercial farmer declared that he had made a loss and that no dividends would be shared. He went on declaring losses for the 3 year term of the Memorandum of Agreement. When dividends were paid out, they were often paltry. No one could check as the farm budget remained a secret. One year in Mogalatsane each farmer got a mere USD 135. In Setlaboswane the community were so disgruntled that they decided to sue the Joint Venture partner.


No water for washing

Farmers, frequently women whose husbands had migrated to cities to find work, were also dismayed that the new scheme limited water access for other activities. Prior to the establishment of the Joint Venture Partnership the smallholder farmers would use the water in irrigation canals for a range of uses: growing vegetables along the waterside, washing clothes and watering cattle. However, with the new floppy sprinkler irrigation, which is a closed and pressurized system, it was no longer possible to do laundry or even cultivate vegetables

So what went wrong?

The main issue, say the authors, is that farmers need to be empowered and provided with options so they can make their own decisions.  Although there was a ‘consultation’ prior to the establishment of the JVS, only one option was given. This was somewhat manipulative and resembled what is sometimes called ‘facipulation’ – a combination of an attempt to facilitate and at the same time manipulation which does not address what the local communities really want.

Community buy-in and equitable institutional arrangements are paramount, then, when technological fixes are posited as means of improving local livelihoods.

What is needed, says Mapedza, is an interdisciplinary research approach which combines irrigation engineering with the social sciences to provide comprehensive irrigation-based solutions. Irrigation infrastructure needs to be locally owned.

“This study demonstrates that smallholder farmers need to be empowered to be able to produce sustainably,” he says. “Sustainability cannot be imposed; it has to be bottom up. Addressing local ownership will entail that the state should be willing to hand over authority and meaningful decision making powers to the smallholder farmers. Trust has to be developed over time.”

Irrigation has huge potential in South Africa’s poor farmers, but simpler approaches like controlled flood irrigation may be more appropriate for smallholdings.

Mapedza, Everisto; van Koppen, Barbara; Sithole, P.; Bourblanc, M. 2015. Joint venture schemes in Limpopo Province and their outcomes on smallholder farmers livelihoods. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 8p. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1474706515001448

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