Supporting sustainable and inclusive farmer-led irrigation

It is extremely gratifying when long years of evidence gathering and partnership building come to fruition with policy changes that will improve the lives of small-scale farmers. One such example is Ethiopia adopting a tax reform bill in 2019 that removed all import taxes on equipment for irrigation and other agricultural activities.

Previously, import duties represented 37% of the cost of a pump; removing these taxes was one of the first recommendations made by IWMI in 2009 through its AgWater Solutions project. Early in 2018, Abiy Ahmed, the incoming Ethiopian Prime Minister, committed to “... implementing irrigation works extensively and in a coordinated manner ...” in one of his first important speeches. A little more than a year later, the new tax reform came into force – the culmination of more than a decade of hard work and effort. IWMI is now leading the irrigation advisory group for the Ministry of Water Resources, and is working with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency to ensure that farmers who depend on irrigation benefit from the tax exemptions.

Elsewhere in Africa, we continue to support and advocate for sustainable and inclusive farmer-led irrigation. This is crucial because 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is managed by 250 million small-scale farmers, but only 7% of the area is irrigated. Small-scale farmers, who depend on adequate rainfall for a successful harvest, are thus particularly vulnerable to the climate emergency. We want to ensure that small-scale farmers can influence the development of irrigation to meet their own needs.

One way IWMI is addressing this is through public-private partnerships. In Ghana, Mali and Ethiopia, echoing our work in Southeast Asia, we established ‘living labs’ with private sector partners to scale up farmer-led irrigation. We also offer innovation grants, scholarships and internships to develop capacities and skills that will further accelerate change.

A crucial difficulty is that small-scale farmers, particularly women, simply cannot afford many technologies and often have different technology preferences. Also, despite the benefits of decreased emissions, greater food security and climate resilience, one problem with solar-powered irrigation is that running the pump is essentially free and this could lead to overpumping.

Recognizing these problems, Futurepump shares pumping data with IWMI via Internet of Things (IoT) technology ‘for the good of the agriculture sector’. These data contribute to the IWMI Real-time East Africa Live Groundwater Use Database (REAL-GUD). REAL-GUD was a winner of the 2019 Inspire Challenge of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture. The project was awarded USD 100,000 for the purpose of using pumping data to build our evidence on current groundwater levels, and understand patterns of water abstraction and how they affect shallow groundwater tables.

This information can be used to understand potential risks of over-abstraction. We have already developed the world’s first solar suitability tool online, which uses geospatial analysis and remote sensing to allow anyone to identify areas in Africa that are suitable for solar-powered irrigation. Several private sector actors are interested in using the solar suitability data to assess potential markets, which will also help to validate the tool’s predictions. As partners invest in solar-powered irrigation, IWMI will be working with the public and private sectors to ensure that overpumping does not derail the development of farmer-led irrigation.

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