Farmer-Led Irrigation as an Emerging and Diverging Policy Pathway in Sub-Saharan Africa
Farmer-led irrigation development (FLID) is gaining traction as a development strategy with national governments, the private sector and development partners. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) frames FLID as an alternative to large-scale irrigation schemes with established benefits for increased household nutritional diversity and enhanced resilience to shocks, such as climate change and the COVID-19 crisis. Toward understanding the drivers in donor irrigation investments, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation supported a graduate student at Texas A&M University to study the expansion and adoption of FLID as a development strategy over the past 30 years.
Based on 67 small-scale irrigation projects implemented in sub-Saharan Africa from 1991 to 2021, the study identified nearly $4.5 billion in funding, with $3.1 billion just between 2016 to 2021. Most investment was concentrated in Rwanda, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Niger. In addition, the research identified policy models used to operationalize FLID as a development strategy, based on analysis of scale and institutional arrangement of irrigation, technologies, farmer ownership, water governance structures, market relationships and donor roles.
However, not all donors conceptualize or invest in FLID the same way. Toward understanding development partners’ agricultural development priorities, the study typed donor investments as: household hybrid FLID, smallholder private FLID and medium to large-scale commercial FLID. These policy models reflect how development partners are expanding irrigated areas, while also reshaping perceptions of farmer-led irrigation.
FLID for micro-irrigators
Donor-funded projects and research-for-development initiatives that use a household hybrid FLID policy model build on existing, local, farmer-led irrigation with minimal donor intervention. Micro-irrigators utilize a range of technologies and practices — from rainwater harvesting, buckets and other labor-intensive mechanisms to affordable, mechanized water lifting — for both household consumption and some commercial sale. Farmers are not developing irrigation alone, but engage with extension agents and government agencies. While research suggests higher income farmers are more likely to benefit from public investments in FLID and have better access to markets for high-value crops, other approaches are needed for resource-poor farmers. Where micro-irrigators cultivate mostly for home consumption and in areas with weak market linkages, a multiple uses approach enables smallholder farmers, especially women, to gain multiple benefits, such as water for domestic uses. For this type of project, donors primarily fund research, but also the development of smart subsidies to enable smallholders to purchase irrigation technologies, including for staple food production. Donors are directing greater attention toward innovative funding modalities for micro-irrigators.
FLID for small-scale, commercial irrigators
The escalation in donor investment from 2016 to 2021 aimed to scale up access to irrigation technologies from the pilot to multilateral project level. Targeting smallholder private FLID, the interventions emphasize market orientation for high-value crop production and greater mechanization of irrigation, such as pumps, including solar irrigation systems. For example, policy initiatives direct matching grants for technologies toward individuals or small groups on less than 2 hectares. Additionally, FLID may be approached through climate programs and funds, for example, Climate Investment Funds and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Project operations sustainability and climate-smart agriculture priorities are driving these donor investments, as suggested by the monitoring and evaluation metrics.
FLID as a global agribusiness development strategy
Formal, donor-funded projects are also advancing irrigation through agribusiness funding modalities. Such initiatives merge well-resourced, conventional irrigation development pathways with private investment. This third policy model expands irrigation based more on commercial agribusiness, such as corporate farms and community-managed medium to large-scale irrigation schemes. Modalities being utilized include public-private partnerships between national governments, corporations and farmers grouped into cooperatives, as well as out-grower schemes and contract farming for staple crops, such as rice and maize, and specialty tree crops, like mango. While still grouped under the FLID umbrella, these projects build on high-value, export-oriented horticulture and meet domestic, urban demand.
Expanding the FLID approach toward broader development aims
The research shows policy and investment models, along with funding, are expanding. With no single blueprint for supporting small-scale irrigation, development partners target support in different biophysical and socioeconomic contexts to achieve specific development goals. Prominent international finance institutions, development partners and irrigation equipment companies have concentrated heavily on technology promotion, but other models present additional opportunities to deepen impact. Together, the range of approaches help to maximize the potential of FLID to meet sustainable development goal targets. However, development partners are pushing beyond the initial understanding of FLID as farmers driving their own development outside of formal projects, and efforts need to be made to maintain farmer-centric processes.
Building typologies and tracing investments is just a first step. Given that funding increases are recent, research is needed on the socioeconomic impacts on farmers resulting from the various policy models. First, we have yet to explore how the various investment approaches affect access to land and water resources for resource-poor and female farmers, particularly with the medium to large-scale commercial FLID model. Second, attention is needed to identify synergies between FLID and climate-smart agriculture toward effective use of climate funds. As the shift continues toward FLID as an irrigation development strategy, research will be important to ensuring FLID is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable.