In Sub-Saharan Africa, irrigation is severely underutilized, with estimates showing that only 4 percent of land in the region is under irrigation. At the World Food Bank, one of our main goals is to help farmers increase their farming outputs, their incomes, and their overall quality of life. Irrigation, in and of itself, is a catalyst for creating these outcomes and creating myriad positive benefits that spiral out to other parts of the agricultural value chain and to society at large. Successful irrigation programs lead to farmers producing more and better food and achieving higher incomes and better health outcomes for their families. In order to lift more people out of poverty and into food-secure positions, we must be willing to invest in water resources and water management that support strong and stable agricultural production.

The erratic weather of Sub-Saharan Africa suggests that the development of irrigation in several areas should be widely implemented across smallholder farms. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that irrigation has the potential to boost agricultural activities by 50 percent, even though it finds that less than 6% of land across the continent is equipped for it. Additionally, the IFPRI suggests that more than two-thirds of existing irrigated area is concentrated in just five countries across the whole continent—Egypt, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa, and Sudan—which each have more than 1 million hectares of irrigated land.

According to the FAO, Kenya is well ahead of other countries in the sub-Saharan region in utilization of low-cost technologies for small-scale irrigation. Kenya’s total irrigated area is about 80,000 hectares, though the estimated potential is more than 300,000 hectares. The African Center for Economic Transformation recommends that acquiring groundwater knowledge and skill in addition to surface water use is essential to combating droughts. To be sure, the center asserts that more than 78 percent of irrigation comes from surface water and nearly 20 percent from groundwater. Farmers in Kenya use various methods for water collection and distribution, including rainwater harvesting, bucket irrigation, gravity fed sprinkler and drips, treadle and pedal pumps, rope and washer, motorized pumps, windpower and construction of small earthen dams. The FAO encourages farmers to come together to collectively purchase necessary irrigation equipment that is too expensive for individual farmers. For example, some low-horsepower pumps range from $700 – $900 USD, and an investment in several pumps for a few farmers could relieve some agricultural constraints among smallholder farmers who cannot afford pumps on their own.

A study found in the Journal of Peasant Studies proposes irrigation development be farmer-led. They provide examples of where irrigation in Africa has succeeded: furrow irrigation in mountainous areas, shallow groundwater in valley bottoms, petrol pump irrigation from areas near open water bodies, and (peri-)urban agriculture using waste water. They also argue that smallholder farmers are already investing, collectively, in irrigation in the capacity of public irrigation. In Ghana, 65,000 pumps and accessories were imported between 2003 and 2010, worth over $8 million USD, involving 11,000 families.

While NGOs have alleviated some of the financial burden for a few farmers who need assistance through loans, government aid and private investment is also needed. The FAO adds that the government has put considerable effort into crop and livestock research, but little effort has gone into support for agricultural engineering like irrigation. The Journal of Peasant Studies explains that while farmers invest their own money into irrigation, there still needs to be a range of interactions between government, donor and non-governmental agencies, markets and the rural economy, and farmers in order for irrigation practices to be successful. Additionally, proper education regarding agricultural engineering should be administered to ensure that irrigation pumps and systems can be maintained over time. Records indicate that pump breakdowns happen frequently and farmers are not trained to maintain or repair equipment.

Of course, irrigation is not the only solution needed to end poverty and increase agricultural productivity. However, it is a necessary and important component, and it is exponentially more useful when supplemented with soil fertilization, crop rotation, and adapted seeds. Irrigation development can enhance agriculture and agri-business if collaborative efforts take place.

At the World Food Bank, we are working to ensure these collaborative efforts are in place at all of our farm sites, and, over the next five years, we expect to work with more than 150,000 farmers in Uganda alone on access to irrigation and other inputs, increasing each farmer’s income by 70 percent. We also continue working with our government, NGO, and private-sector partners to expand these efforts out through the Eastern Africa region and beyond.