“Agricultural technologies are really at the heart of food productivity growth,” Claudia Ringler from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) argued last year.
Nevertheless, irrigation technologies remain something of a rarity in many parts of Africa. As pressure mounts on Africa’s farmers to produce more food, greater numbers are looking to technology to deliver higher yields and increased incomes.
Improved irrigation, in particular, would greatly increase crop production. In many areas of Africa there is plenty of water, but farmers lack the resources to access it outside of the rainy season.
Zambia is a case in point: it has huge irrigation potential, but three quarters of small-scale farmers still rely on bucket irrigation. Use of motorized pumps could transform this situation, so why aren’t more farmers using them already?
Without a doubt, there are a number of factors preventing the uptake of irrigation technologies. Supplying farmers with pumps is one of them, and it is a problem that deserves closer attention. So far, astonishingly little consideration has been given to supply chain and how it might influence the development of mechanized irrigation.
Centralization is the limiting factor
A recent study conducted by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) found that the supply chain for motorized pumps in Zambia is limited as goods and services are highly centralized in the capital Lusaka and only a few other urban centers. Most rural smallholders, of course, live far from these urban areas.
The study revealed that information about pump costs and maintenance is scarce. Prices of pumps can vary widely, but smallholder farmers are rarely in the know and thus can’t take advantage of the fluctuations. They are essentially isolated from the supply chain, and lack of information prevents them from having an influence on the processes.
IWNI researcher Barbara van Koppen says that these oversights could be addressed by improving smallholders’ access to products and information. “However, decentralization is not a feasible business plan for retailers. This is where farmer cooperatives and unions could be highly effective,” asserts van Koppen.
Turning towards farmer unions
The strength of farmer unions such as the Zambian National Farm Union is that they are usually decentralized. This fact puts them in the perfect position to unlock each component of the supply chain. For instance, they could negotiate with a supplier to bring in pumps at a discounted bulk price–an option potentially favorable to both supplier and farmer.
But why stop there? Well managed farmers’ associations could easily import pumps themselves. They could also provide information on the range of different pumps available, where to buy them, and for how much. By arranging for a supply of spare parts, individual farmers could be spared from traveling long distances to acquire them. What’s more, associations could explore the willingness of retailers to train local mechanics in maintenance and repair.
It’s a long list, but ultimately we need to mobilize farmer cooperatives and unions to be the driving force behind the rapid implementation of private irrigation.
Blogpost by Anna Deinhard, IWMI Communications Fellow and a social reporter at AASW6.