Whole-system approaches reap benefits of small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa

Photo: David Brazier / IWMI

Small-scale irrigation is advancing in sub-Saharan Africa with the help of research and management tools that improve understanding of how best to support farmers.


With just 4% of total agricultural land irrigated, sub-Saharan Africa lags far behind other regions. The failure of large-scale government schemes, often due to lack of maintenance and revenues, has set the stage for state-sanctioned small-scale irrigation (SSI). WLE has contributed to a better understanding of how smallholder communities can be supported to overcome context-specific constraints related to financing, technological knowhow and user rights.


Technological innovations for irrigation – be it solar-powered groundwater pumps or ‘smart sticks’ to measure water use – often do not ‘trickle down’ through target groups. WLE research on many fronts has advanced understanding of the constraints faced by smallholder farmers, particularly vulnerable groups, in irrigating their holdings.

Agricultural innovation platforms that bring together all stakeholders, from smallholders to public and private sector representatives, apply a whole-system approach to structure the development trajectories of these complex systems. Management and mapping tools have also been developed to assess these dynamics and enable better analysis of water resource use.


WLE-supported studies confirm that irrigation can offset seasonal food gaps and improve diets for subsistence farmers as well as rural and urban households buying irrigated produce from local markets. Women, being more affected by seasonality, can benefit from the introduction of irrigation. However, there may be gendered constraints to being aware of SSI, adopting technologies and practices, and actually benefiting from the continued use of irrigation. Gender toolkits have facilitated assessments of community dynamics that can inform project user-centered design and development.

More general management and mapping tools have also provided insights into the uptake and impact of SSI. The Small-Scale Irrigation Mapping (SSIM) tool has been used to validate the results of a decision support tool in Burkina Faso. The Tool for Implementers allows an assessment of the enabling environment needed for successful SSI and has been incorporated into the World Bank farmer-led irrigation guide. Such toolkits reiterate the need to bring stakeholders together, as in the agricultural innovation platforms in Zimbabwe that have reached beyond dissemination of smart water management technologies to developing a common vision, reducing conflict among users and opening up avenues to scale up the project nationally.


Irrigation projects operate in complex socio-ecological scenarios involving multiple players on different levels, and it is unrealistic to expect the real world to align with planned outcomes. ‘Soft’ barriers are as important as, if not more important than, technical barriers to implementing profitable SSI. Many smallholders struggle to obtain finance to purchase expensive equipment or lack the skills to operate the technology. Vulnerable groups such as women tend to experience these constraints more profoundly. Irrigation must adapt to farmers, not the other way around.

While innovation platforms and other forms of stakeholder consultation hold great promise, challenges remain in sustaining the platforms set up for specific projects, making sure that existing networks are made use of, and creating level playing fields for all stakeholders involved. 

Next steps

There are many promising SSI pilots deploying a range of financing options, but it is essential for governments to incentivize financial providers to provide credit to smallholders for the purchase of irrigation equipment. To scale up, policymakers should also work towards a ‘big push’ for SSI based on an enabling environment for market players rather than rely on a trickle of pilot innovations – this would include a supportive regulatory framework, financial mechanisms, and facilitation of technology adoption and markets. It will be critical to harness the success of these smaller projects to influence decision makers, and link governance from the local to regional and national levels.


Enhancing the scaling of irrigation and water management technologies Theory and application of agricultural innovation platforms

SDGs supported

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

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