Africa Business Communities

[Column] Bob Koigi: Smallholder irrigation a key panacea to Africa’s perennial food shortage

Farmers in Africa can create a trillion-dollar food market by 2030 if they expanded their access to more capital, better technology, irrigated land and grow high-value nutritious foods according to a very insightful World Bank report dubbed Growing Africa: Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness report in Africa.

But it is the emphasis on small holder irrigation that speaks volume of how urgent we need to put our house together before the hunger cycle spirals out of control.  Although irrigation in Africa has the potential to boost agricultural productivities by at least 50 percent, food production on the continent is almost entirely rainfed.

The area equipped for irrigation, currently slightly more than 13 million hectares, makes up just 6 percent of the total cultivated area.

Populations throughout sub-Saharan Africa are growing. Traditional methods of support to agriculture have largely failed, and by the year 2025, there will be 1.2 thousand million people who will need 300 million tons of grain.

How can an impact be made on irrigation, irrigation technology, associated support services and in other areas? Business as usual in technology generation and adoption, support services, marketing and credit has not worked on rainfed lands. What can be done differently in irrigation?

In Kenya, due to a combination of population growth, rising incomes and urbanization, strong demand is driving food and agricultural prices higher.  Supply issues top of them water scarcity, and a changing climate mean that prices will remain high.  Yet Kenya is exploiting only ten per cent of its irrigable land potential despite perennial food insecurity.

The over a million acre irrigation campaign by our government is a well thought out plan as the answer to our country’s perennial food deficit. But we need to get beyond the rhetoric and understand the specifics of making this venture tenable, long lasting and sustainable.

With the alarming increase in population, we cannot afford to play Russian roulette with our future generation in food matters.

While it is commendable that the number of smallholders practicing irrigation has increased from 400,000 to an estimated one million in the recent past, we still have a long way to go.

As irrigation schemes pick up, water, which is a critical component in all this, needs to be used in a sustainable way. Farmers need training on how to conserve water through modern innovation.

To reach every smallholder in this country and get them to appreciate the essence of irrigation to up yields and improve household incomes is no mean feat for government. This is where the private sector comes in.

The resolve and spirited efforts by the private sector in providing access to affordable irrigation technology to smallholder farmers has paid off. Infact a recent survey by Bridgenet Africa has shown, in African stories that have perfected the art of smallholder irrigation, shows that within one year of the rollout , yields had climbed by over 30 percent and household incomes improved to even 20 percent. Interestingly, eight out of the ten countries polled argued that the successful rollout was informed by a harmonized public private partnership.

In a country where adoption of small holder irrigation holds the key to a hunger free future, getting our acts together now more than ever will be our saving grace.

Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor East Africa at Africa Business Communities


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