Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Thinking Small to Think Big: Q&A With the Small-Scale Irrigation Innovation Lab

As part of its September focus on research for agricultural productivity, Agrilinks is showcasing the work of the Feed the Future Innovation Labs this month. The Innovation Labs use collaborative research to develop and scale sustainable technologies to feed a growing population with nutritious, safe foods. These labs form a network of more than 70 U.S. colleges and universities working with developing country partners to pioneer solutions that boost productivity, combat emerging threats and benefit farmers and food producers both at home and abroad. 

This interview with the Small-Scale Irrigation Innovation Lab is the second of a series on how Innovation Labs are helping to drive productivity gains needed for a food-secure future. Click here to read the first post.

How is your Lab’s research working to drive agricultural productivity gains?

Small-scale irrigation is a key to driving agricultural productivity gains, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where there is frequent extreme climate variability. Yields can triple or quadruple with the introduction of small-scale irrigation. Importantly, small-scale irrigation supports all other agricultural technologies, be it innovations in horticulture, soy and other crops, and even livestock through irrigated fodder.

Our Innovation Lab, Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI), is also driving gains at the field level with farmers. For example, introducing tools for improved irrigation scheduling is increasing yields and improving produce quality, all while reducing water use by farmers that use motorized pumps for water lifting. This increases incomes by reducing the costs of inputs, such as fuel for pumps and reduced fertilizer. It also increases the amount of produce for sale. Moreover, providing farmers with information about market prices and weather enables them to make informed and better decisions on when to plant. This drives agricultural productivity gains where we want to see them impact farmer livelihoods.

Underlining all this, however, is our ability to assess the impact of introducing irrigation at different levels of scale. Through the use of the integrated decision support system (IDSS), our lab can assess the consequences of small-scale irrigation interventions on production, environmental and economic outcomes based on data collected from the field. Initial model results have forecasted the availability of water and other natural resource inputs for siting small-scale irrigation studies at local, regional and national levels. The IDSS and a new agent-based model have been used to scale results from field to national levels to show potential as well as limitations to scaling. The national model allows planners to reference and evaluate the potential consequences of small-scale irrigation interventions. 

What result or finding are you most proud/excited about? 

It’s challenging to name just one single finding we are proud of. However, we can point to a few findings:

  • Small-scale irrigation can target specific contexts. ILSSI implements an integrated approach to address the impacts of small-scale irrigation on agricultural productivity, environmental sustainability and economic and nutrition outcomes using a suite of biophysical and socio-economic models. This approach is applied in different agro-ecological regions, and findings are published in several scientific articles and reports.
  • Small-scale irrigation and related technologies can empower women and improve nutritional outcomes. We’re finding new results and recently published a discussion paper and a policy note on these topics.
  • Labor inputs matter. New analysis on labor as an input to irrigated, intensified production has enabled us to see the importance of introducing tools and practices that can reduce household labor loads as agriculture production intensifies. In addition, research on costs and benefits as well as microfinance together shows that water lifting technologies are often affordable to farmers and can be paid back within a reasonable time period with the right supporting conditions for access to microfinance.
  • Improved data about availability of land and water can create new opportunities for small-scale irrigation. Smallholders are willing and prepared to allocate scarce land and water to forage production, which is economically attractive and viable and supports the overall productivity and nutrition in mixed crop livestock systems. Smallholders can also establish and participate in feed and fodder value chains using a forage-as-cash crop approach. Using the IDSS to track the availability of resources for small-scale irrigation can be made sustainable, preventing exploitation of resources.  

What have you learned that has gone against the conventional wisdom in this space? 

I would point to three findings here:

  1. Tools are important, even for new irrigators' water management. In the past, most irrigation management activities focused on irrigated areas that had been in place for a long time and those areas that showed water shortages and or water over-use. ILSSI brought in irrigation management tools from the get-go and found through field studies that these can increase yield, reduce labor and, in some instances, conserve water.
  2. Irrigated fodder and fodder markets are possible. ILSSI, in partnership with other activities, showed that irrigated fodder is both a desired and viable value chain in Ethiopia and also has potential in Tanzania. Importantly, women dominate the fodder markets opening new income opportunities for them.
  3. Small-scale irrigation does not increase the incidence of malaria. Our first round of measuring for malaria — in partnership with the sustainable intensification lab at Kansas State University — has found no malaria incidence in the dry season in northern Ethiopia in small-scale irrigated areas. Previous studies suggested there could be increased malaria incidence in irrigating villages, presumably located close to larger irrigation systems. Small-scale systems do not show this linkage but we are doing further studies to confirm the observations.

How can the Agrilinks community of researchers and implementers benefit from/connect with what you’re doing?  

We plan to host a webinar soon on our gender-irrigation findings and hope that the implementer community will tune in. We will also continue to share our findings at various national, regional and international events, particularly Stockholm World Water Week and Africa Water Week. We have also entered the publication phase of our project and have a stream of journal articles and policy notes coming along that will be featured on our website.  

The ILSSI project has also been providing capacity building training on Integrated Decision Support Systems (IDSS) in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania. The IDSS training includes Soil and Water Assessment (SWAT), Agriculture Policy/Environment eXtender (APEX) and Farm Income and Nutrition Simulator (FARMSIM). We will provide another training in Ethiopia in January 2018.