Date released
14 December 2023

In Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, irrigation schemes represent a major infrastructure investment to improve the productivity of farming systems and food security.

Some schemes were built by governments, others by international donors, but many struggled to realise their potential to produce better yields and more profitable farming.

For the past decade, an ACIAR-supported project has been working with smallholder farmers in these countries to identify and overcome issues hindering production.

The ‘Transforming irrigation in southern Africa’ project began in 2013 and focused on improving the effectiveness of irrigation schemes in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The second phase, which began in 2017 and is being finalised this year, tested the scalability of water use efficiency tools developed in the first phase.

A new project will begin next year, with support from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The new project will build on the momentum of the first 2 phases, expanding its focus to circular food systems, value-adding to crops and improving the local economies of farming communities.

Transforming irrigation

Project leader Professor Jamie Pittock, at the Australian National University, said that despite the large investment in infrastructure in southern Africa, there were initially many inefficiencies in the way the irrigation schemes were being used.

‘Governments and donors had spent billions building dams, canals and levelling fields, but most of the schemes were producing the same amount of food as the surrounding dryland,’ said Professor Pittock.

Many schemes were stuck in a cycle of rebuilding the infrastructure and only addressing the physical symptoms of failure. Professor Pittock said the ACIAR-supported project aimed to address not only the technical issues, but also the social issues.

The first 2 phases of the project have developed and trialled 2 main interventions to meet this goal: accessible and easy-to-use technologies for farmers, and the development of agricultural innovation platforms (AIPs).

a woman and man talking while standing in the middle of a field of green low ground covering plants.

Technical interventions

Technologies introduced through the project included a wetting front detector, a probe that indicates the depth to which water has infiltrated the soil and monitors the soil nutrients, and a moisture probe that shows farmers when the soil has the right amount of moisture. These soil tools were invented by Dr Richard Stirzaker at CSIRO with ACIAR support and are available at VIA Farm.

‘These simple technologies are relatively cheap to produce and easy to use, and can help farmers massively improve the efficient use of irrigation resources,’ said Professor Pittock.

‘There was an issue with farmers practically drowning their crops and washing away their fertilisers. So when we provided farmers with these tools, they very quickly learned they only had to apply half as much water and, in turn, saw a significant improvement in yields.

‘We have demonstrated how to achieve sustainable intensification of agriculture in these systems. This is crucial knowledge if the world is to feed a population of 10 billion people with limited land and water while minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Reducing the amount of water applied also saved time and labour. Farmers had more time to spend on building off-farm businesses, intensifying their farming, or spending time with family.’

One knock-on effect was to reduce conflicts between farmers in the same irrigation scheme, as those at the head of the canal had been using too much water, leaving not enough water for those at the end of the canal.

‘Because farmers were fighting with each other over water, a lot of cooperative things were not happening to help the irrigation scheme work well, such as maintaining the infrastructure and buying inputs in bulk,’ said Professor Pittock.

Agricultural innovation platforms

Improving the water usage in these systems meant that yields increased significantly, but this created another potential issue: flooding the market with too much produce.

‘This is where the development of AIPs became crucial,’ said Professor Pittock. ‘We sat down with farming communities and asked them to draw a picture of where they wanted their community to be in 5 years, and then a second picture of where it is now, and then to list the barriers and opportunities to get where they wanted to be.’

Tanzania project co-lead Dr Makarius Mdemu, Ardhi University, said the AIPs brought together the various stakeholders of these schemes. These included farmers and agricultural officers from local government, government agencies that were responsible for regulations and non-government organisations.

This process identified 2 main issues: the high cost of inputs and the lack of markets. The AIPs provided networks and communication streams to help farmers resolve these issues.

It helped farmers to connect with agricultural supply businesses to set up bulk sales and reduce the price of inputs. It also connected them with end users of the crop produce so farmers could get a better sense of what buyers were looking for and plant the appropriate crops with preferred timings for markets.

‘They may have different interests, but they share a common vision,’ said Dr Mdemu. ‘We saw that with some of the barriers, farmers had the capability to address it themselves, which greatly improved the social cohesion.

‘Some barriers were issues with the system itself, and they could then bring in the appropriate experts to assist them.’

For example, 2 schemes involved in the project identified that they did not have a big enough budget assigned to irrigation infrastructure maintenance, so they brought in a lawyer to help them change their constitution.

‘Our government put a lot of investment into the irrigation infrastructures, but less into building the capacity of farmers,’ said Dr Mdemu.

‘One of the big successes of this project has been the organisational capacity building that has occurred through these AIPs, which means farmers have networks and are now able to manage the irrigation schemes sustainably.’

a group of people standing on to top of a rock wall as part of a water irrigation system
The ‘Transforming irrigation in southern Africa’ project has worked to improve the productivity of irrigation schemes in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique. Photo: ICRISAT

Circular food systems

As the second phase of the project finishes this year, a new project has been approved to expand the scope of the overall project, moving further down the value chain to create applied outcomes for rural communities.

Dr Neil Lazarow, ACIAR Research Program Manager, Water, said this was essentially a circular food systems

project that would build on elements of the transforming irrigation projects, but with a new focus.

‘The circular food systems project keeps the goal of productive management and allocation of water for smallholders, but it has the new goal of developing small to medium enterprises to add to the value of the products produced, giving farmers more economic control and opportunities,’ said Dr Lazarow.

This will include improving opportunities for women and youth, improving access to finance for them and encouraging youth to work in rural areas.

The new project will also explore how the carbon footprint can be reduced while improving the local economy, reducing the amount of product sent away for processing and finding ways to turn waste products into by-products with other uses.

‘This means more food, more income, more jobs and
no increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the same natural resources,’ said Dr Lazarow.

Dr Lazarow is optimistic about how this project can apply the principles of circular economy.

‘This project is exciting because it takes the theory
and actually trials durable solutions to improve, not just productivity, but economic outcomes.’

ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Transforming smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems in southern Africa’ (LWR/2016/137); VIA Farm tools.