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

“Yes and" Collaboration at the Symposium on Irrigation in African Smallholder Farming Systems

In improv comedy, the mantra is not “yes but” but “yes and” — the idea that a participant should accept what another participant has stated and then expand on that line of thinking. The Symposium on Irrigation in African Smallholder Farming Systems, held in Washington, DC January 31 on the tails of the Water for Food International Forum, very much embodied this creative, collaborative, can-do spirit: Yes, we can double ag productivity by 2025 with the help of irrigation and fertilizer, and, in so doing, Africa can meet its own growing food demand rather than rely on imports. Yes, irrigation can help communities adapt to climate change and other variability they are already experiencing, and it can also help them face future uncertainty by building assets. Yes, the private sector is critical to irrigation scaling, and so are the public sector and development partners.

The event was sponsored by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI), and much of the day’s content revolved around its research findings from Ghana, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Check out the video below for a brief snapshot of ILSSI and its work in Ethiopia specifically.

The day kicked off with encouraging remarks from Rob Bertram, Chief Scientist for the USAID's Bureau for Food Security (BFS), who mapped the work around irrigation to the results framework of the U.S. Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS), namely how irrigation feeds into the GFSS’s three key outcomes, increased resilience, ag productivity and nutrition, a statement that would be clearly bolstered from the research presented throughout the course of the day.

Thinking Holistically About Irrigation

Participants also heard from Jerry Glover, Senior Sustainable Agriculture Advisor for BFS, who stressed the need to think about irrigation from a “whole of farm” concept. Sustainable intensification calls for increased ag productivity through a more efficient use of resources, whereby natural resources can be at minimum conserved and even enhanced — an achievable goal with the help of appropriate irrigation techniques that account for the multiple uses of water at the farm and household level.

We also heard throughout the day about the growing market for livestock fodder and subsequently the need for feed — as well as food — security. The demand for livestock is growing steadily with increases in affluences and sheer population growth and requires much water as well as feed (and water to feed the feed!).

As with other speakers, Glover also brought the conversation back to the watershed level. Communities have to work together for water to be managed effectively, as what someone does with water upstream affects neighbors downstream. Glover had promising stories to tell from visiting ILSSI projects and their partners in Ethiopia, where young entrepreneurs were getting into the game with small pumps they were using to draw water and distribute to area farmers. He also shared the tale of a farmer who had invested in a solar pump and had seen his young avocado trees bear enormous amounts of fruit, reinvesting profits in an irrigation upgrade to a solar pump in part to protect the investment in this long-term tree crop.

Steven Schonberger, The World Bank’s Global Lead for Water in Agriculture, circled back to the notion of farmer-led irrigation from the World Bank event of the prior few days, defining it as being about farmers choosing the technology and being responsible for its maintenance and operation, which hasn’t always been the case.

Research Reveals Irrigation’s Multiple Benefits

We next dug into ILSSI’s rich research findings, hearing first from Nicole Lefore from the International Water Management Institute. Her takeaways were as clear as they were promising: irrigation is economically feasible for smallholder families, it has multiple benefits and it saves labor. She brought in some important caveats however, such as that labor is the highest cost of small-scale irrigation and needs to be accounted for. In households where women’s labor is perceived to be plentiful, male decision-makers may be less apt to invest in irrigation technologies, according to Lefore.

Another interesting takeaway was that the benefits reported by the farmer were not always the same as those emerging from the research. Benefits included not only a greater quantity but also quality of crop produced, fetching a better price in the market. Lefore also talked about the benefits of irrigation scheduling tools: improve water productivity and income, while reducing labor and hard costs involved with overirrigation. It was also mentioned that finance providers see irrigation as less risky of an investment and potentially easier, though we know smallholders and women farmers in particular, have a hard row to hoe when it comes to accessing finance. As a side note, the research found certain crops like amaranth to be more profitable, though underappreciated.  

Claudia Ringler with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) was up next with an interesting schematic showing five different pathways through which irrigation could improve nutrition. The research findings Ringler presented were very promising: irrigators in all three countries studied were financially better off, more food secure and had more diverse diets, statements true of both men and women. One of her takeaways was the importance of policy synergies, accounting for WASH, ag, nutrition and health.

Gender and Irrigation: It’s Complicated

Ringler’s partner-in-research, IFPRI’s Elizabeth Bryan, delved further into the question of women’s empowerment, and why it’s critical to have a gender lens on irrigation. Women have different roles, and face a double burden, when it comes to water, as they have to collect and manage both domestic and productive uses of water. They have a real stake in saving the time and the hard labor, as this takes out of their day. Meanwhile, we know they face significant constraints in accessing credit, information, markets and land. As such important to develop programs that accounts for different preferences, priorities and roles, and information channels, providing a menu of options. The household survey conducted showed that small-scale irrigation does not always lead to women’s empowerment. As an example, irrigated fodder may have great potential, but women may end up losing out if the crop gets too profitable and is taken over by men in the household.

While irrigation is not a cure-all for poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, in the spirit of “yes and,” it was clear from the work presented in the day’s proceedings that irrigation has great potential to drive toward these development outcomes, with the help of its friends in soil/watershed management, policy innovations, private-public collaboration and even knowledge management to get the right information in the right hands for decision-making at every level, from farm to cabinet.

The Symposium was a high note on which to end Agrilinks’ Water for Food month, which will be recapped soon as a special Agrilinks collection, so come back to the (resource) well for more soon!