The agriculture sector was one of the ‘winners’ during the reading of 2015/16 Kenya budget estimates yesterday. The sector will now benefit from an allocation of a whooping KES 79.2 for rural and urban development of which 13 billion (USD 133.9 million) is set aside for irrigation. The National Irrigation Board is expected to get KES 10.3 billion (USD 106 million) of this allocation in a move aimed at promoting the shift from rain-fed agriculture to irrigation. While presenting these estimates to the national parliament, the Finance Cabinet Secretary, Mr. Henry Rotich noted that “the investment in agriculture is meant to promote food security, bring resilience in the economy, create jobs and reduce poverty.”

But what does this development potent for the Kenyan farmer? To begin with, it is important to understand that the agriculture sector in Kenya, and in deed most of Africa, is run by the smallholder farmer. According to the FAO, 80% of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is managed by smallholders. Out of the 2.5 billion people in poor countries living directly from the food and agriculture sector, 1.5 billion people live in smallholder households; many of those households are extremely poor and, majority of these smallholder farmers practice rain-fed agriculture.The Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture Series of 2009 found that ‘though rain-fed agriculture constitutes 80% of global agriculture and plays a crucial role in achieving food security, increasing water scarcity and climate change threaten to affect rain-fed areas and their peoples owing to their vulnerability to drought during the crop-growing season.

Additionally, due to inadequate water storage capacity the entire agricultural cycle in these areas is disrupted whenever the rain fails or simply comes too early or too late (World Bank, 2006). The result is that recurring droughts leave poor farming families without food crops and cause periodic famines (IFAD 2008).
Could the answer to combating the frequent crop failure be a move away from exclusively rain-dependent agriculture? Well, maybe! In sub-Saharan Africa, the available groundwater resources are 100 times those of renewable surface water. Further, a policy paper by GND (2012) suggests that sub-Saharan Africa is water-abundant but uses less than 2% of its total renewable water resources. Food production is almost entirely rain-fed with irrigation currently playing a minor role. Only 4% (6 million ha) of the region’s total cultivated area is irrigated compared to 37% in Asia and 14% in Latin America (You et al., 2010). This is far from achieving its irrigation potential which is estimated at 42.5 million ha.

While the greater percentage of funds allocated to irrigation, including the allocations by the Kenya government, have in the past ignored smallholders in favor of large scale irrigation, governments seem to be changing tact. In spite of great disappointment and excessive spending on previous large-scale irrigation schemes in the past, sub-Saharan African governments are reviewing their approach to water management and are instituting a new wave of reforms. Among them are a reduction in government involvement, encouragement of greater farmer participation, cost recovery of irrigation development and a shift from large-scale to small-scale schemes (GND Agriculture Policy Paper, 2012).

But even with these efforts, some challenges still continue to dog irrigation endeavors by smallholders in Africa. Farmers often hold back from investing in groundwater irrigation because of the high drilling costs of tube wells and lack of information about groundwater availability. Farm Concern International (FCI), a market wide development agency whose work primarily revolves around commercialization of smallholder farmers across Africa, has through its innovations come up with appropriate technologies to alleviate this challenge. One such technology is the Kijiji Drip Irrigation kit which uses simple materials available in many smallholder communities to allow farmers to plant during the dry period. The use of Kijiji Irrigation makes it easy for farmers to plant during the off-peak season when the demand and prices are good, utilize comparatively less land size and avail farmers’ food that can supplement family nutrition.

Needless to say, the return on investment for using irrigation in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa is tremendous! The best available evidence estimates that irrigated agriculture is between 1.5 and 3 times as productive as rain-fed agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, studies of the socio-economic benefits of irrigation at the community level have documented significant contributions to poverty reduction.

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FCI VISION : To have commercialized smallholder communities with increased incomes for improved, stabilized & sustainable livelihoods in Africa and beyond