Studying African Farmer-led Irrigation (SAFI)

Professor Philip Woodhouse, The University of Manchester

Start date: Jan 2015 | End date: Dec 2017

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International commitment to funding irrigation in Africa is increasing in response to rising food prices and the ongoing challenge of low agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. An alliance of five influential international organisations has called for large-scale new investments into irrigation (The World Bank, African Development Bank, Food and Agricultural Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development and International Water Management Institute).

Though formal investment in large-scale irrigation measures has declined, there has been widespread investment by African farmers themselves in diverse ‘informal’ irrigation methods including stream diversion, wetland reclamation, and the implementation of small pump systems. 

To date there have been no systematic studies of whether these measures increase productivity or benefit the wider economy. Current framings of, and writings on, irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa are constrained by two limitations linked to conceptions of irrigation that originate outside the region. First, irrigation in Africa is commonly characterised as falling short of an Asian benchmark. Second, the solution is often envisaged as the ‘transfer of technology’ from elsewhere. 

The DEGRP-funded Studying African Farmer-led Irrigation (SAFI) project aims to remedy these issues, bringing together researchers and irrigation specialists from the UK, France, Netherlands, and Africa to explore whether current investment by farmers in small-scale irrigation can offer a model for broad-based economic growth in rural areas of Africa.

Through a detailed analysis of existing initiatives, the project aims to arrive at a greater understanding of the socio-economic consequences of small-scale investment; changing land and water rights; and of the choices of technical and financial support required for small-scale farmers to increase agricultural productivity. This understanding will then be used to help inform policies for enhanced agricultural productivity.

The research will focus on the following questions: 

  • In what different ways do development agencies (Government and non-Government) engage with farmer-led irrigation initiatives?
  • How do different policy-making priorities and assumptions shape this engagement in the interconnected political domains of irrigation development, community development, agricultural development and natural resources management?
  • To what extent are development agencies' policies modified as a result of engagement with farmers involved in irrigation development?
  • How do different groups of farmers engage in farmer-led irrigation, and with what outcomes for their assets and ability to derive benefits from agriculture?
  • Based on the findings of the research, can a typology of irrigation initiatives be identified that would be useful for policy makers?
  • What is the wider country-level significance of farmer-led irrigation initiatives?