Transforming smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems in southern Africa

Project code
AUD 4,450,000
Research program manager
Dr Neil Lazarow
Project leader
Dr Jamie Pittock
Commissioned organisation
Australian National University
JUN 2017
DEC 2023
Project status
Legally committed/Active
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This project aims to improve farmer livelihoods, equity and community management in smallholder irrigation schemes in Southern Africa.

Across Africa, governments and donors are investing in a massive expansion of irrigated agriculture, assuming that this will reduce poverty for smallholder farmers and increase food security. Yet existing smallholder irrigation schemes on the continent have largely failed to significantly reduce farmer poverty, use the land and water sustainably or maintain the irrigation infrastructure. There is a complex array of reasons for this, ranging from farmers’ skills and markets to dysfunctional institutions.

A prior ACIAR project (FSC/2013/006) Increasing irrigation water productivity in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through on-farm monitoring, adaptive management and agricultural innovation platforms (AIPs), found that AIPs combined with soil moisture and solute measuring and monitoring substantially increase the productivity and incomes of farmers and make irrigation schemes more self-sustaining.

This follow-on research project will test how best to spread those findings beyond individual irrigation schemes to many other irrigation schemes and countries.

Expected Outcomes

  • Irrigation communities becoming more profitable and self-sustaining as a result of individual and social learning, and institutional and technological change. This will result from: farmers mindsets changing from subsistence to market-oriented practices and choosing more profitable crops with more reliable markets; better access to cheaper and higher quality farming inputs; more efficient use of water and fertilisers resulting in greater crop yields; reduced social conflicts; savings in irrigation labour directed to other livelihood activities; more effective farmer organisations; farmers being willing to pay sufficient water fees and provide labour to maintain infrastructure; and greater demand on governments to support the irrigation sector’s needs. Some expansion of irrigated cropping is expected as water is used more efficiently.
  • Extension and support staff facilitating AIPs and supporting the development of district-scale agricultural service providers and markets.
  • Governments applying project findings to provide answers on how best to meet their key irrigation policy targets.
  • Partnerships with the private sector leading to more vibrant local economies, as all value chain stakeholders benefit from increases in agro-economic activities.



Summary of outcomes to date


In FY22, the Transforming Irrigation in Southern Africa (TISA) project worked through 11-district scale Agricultural Innovation Platforms (AIP) engaging 41 irrigation schemes in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Some 754 farmers are using soil-monitoring tools connected to the Virtual Irrigation Academy. 1,097 farmers are monitoring their profitability with field books, of which 676 have had gross margin assessments.

The project engages actors at scheme, district and provincial levels in AIPs, and with water and nutrient management to improve crop yields and profitability. More than 1,000 people have been trained. This has resulted in reduced irrigation frequency and duration, which have reduced production costs and improved crop yields. This has enabled collaborative activities to improve the maintenance and profitability of the irrigation farming systems.

The AIP processes are leading to a wide range of outcomes, for example collaborative mapping in Tanzania led to local banks issuing 615 loans to farmers.

Systematic end of project data collection has been occurring this year, using a variety of methods including surveys, focal group meetings and interviews. Data cleaning and analysis is underway for reporting in FY23.

TISA activities have been presented in six journal articles and one book chapter with a further three articles under review. Eighteen conference papers were presented at four international events.

In FY23, the final year of TISA, we will focus on evaluating and extending the climate change adaptation benefits. As well as synthesizing and communicating research findings, and on transitioning activities to provide ongoing benefits for farmers.

Map of Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe
Key partners
Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network
Ardhi University
Australian National University
CSIRO Agriculture and Food
CSIRO Land and Water
Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network
International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics
National Institute of Irrigation
University of South Australia
fact sheet placeholder image
Fact Sheet LWR/2016/137