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Why drip irrigation isn’t sinking in April 26th, 2015 by

For 15 years, projects in Africa have been promoting drip irrigation kits with “missionary zeal”, but the kits have seldom been used by poor farmers to reap the intended benefits of more food, less poverty, and savings on water. This is too bad, as a growing population and climate change are conspiring to make water an ever more precious resource.

In a sobering paper, Jonas Wanvoeke and colleagues describe how a technology that is perceived to be eminently practical, such as drip irrigation, may never benefit the proclaimed poor beneficiaries if the people promoting it fail to learn from the farmers who have tried it.

For decades, private entrepreneurs and public research and extension agencies have promoted a technology they perceived to be inherently useful, happily ignoring the whole context of how it was acquired, learned about, and adapted. Donor funding is one way to reduce investment risks and to allow people to experiment with a technology in the real world. But progress can only be made with proper reality checks, documentation and drawing of lessons.

Despite the long-term investments, it is startling to read that there has never been “a systematic and independent review of the use and impact of drip irrigation kits in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The authors conclude that: “there is a need for in-depth independent evaluation of drip irrigation projects that reflect the perspectives of smallholders and not only of the promoters of the technology.”

In other words, thirty years after the development community began talking about “farmer participation” some research topics are allowed to continue for years, without seriously engaging with farmers or even taking stock of where the technology is going.

From my experience across Africa, I have seen that water is still by and large seen as a free resource. Anyone with the labour or fuel to pump up the water can take it. There may be little reward for spending money on buckets and hoses, if the investor is saving water that will benefit other users.

I have seen drip irrigation at work without project support, which is featured in the video listed at the bottom of this story, but these are prosperous family farmers, and not the poor households who are supposedly helped by publicly-funded projects.

I am still convinced drip irrigation is a good technology, but social innovations, such as improving water use rights or organising water use groups, may be as important as teaching farmers to use the new irrigation technologies themselves, especially if we want the technology to be socially inclusive.

New ways of making more efficient use of water will remain a priority in the years ahead, but when projects take a narrow focus on just the technology without taking farmers’ perspectives into consideration, they waste yet another increasingly scarce resource: public funds.

Further reading:

Wanvoeke, Jonas, Jean-Philippe Venot, Margreet Zwarteveen and Charlotte de Fraiture 2015 Performing the success of an innovation: the case of smallholder drip irrigation in Burkina Faso. Water International: 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2015.1010364

Watch the training video on the Access Agriculture website: Drip irrigation for tomato

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