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Benefits of Farmer-Led Irrigation Are “Immense”: An Update from the Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation

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Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation / Agrilinks Team

Why small-scale irrigation?

In sub-Saharan Africa, scarce and increasingly variable rainfall represents a major risk. It severely impedes agricultural growth, hampers productivity and makes it difficult for farming households to meet basic needs. Investing in sustainable, profitable, and gender-sensitive irrigation can help alleviate these threats, create greater climate resilience, and put millions of farmers on the path toward food and nutrition security.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) has become a global leader in generating evidence that can inform investments in support of the U.S. global food security goals. Our focus on small-scale, farmer-led irrigation is a shift from earlier trends in research and investments that focused on public, communal schemes. The performance of such larger irrigation schemes has often been disappointing – partly due to water governance challenges – but when farmers take matters into their own hands and make their own, smaller investments, the benefits of irrigation prove to be immense.

ILSSI has demonstrated that farmers’ own investments hold high potential to increase incomes both for farmers and actors in irrigated value chains, while contributing to agriculture-led economic growth. Research also suggests that households that invest in farmer-led irrigation have better nutritional security. There are multiple pathways between irrigation and nutrition, but farmers often use their increased income to purchase food for a more diverse, and nutritious, diet. Irrigated production also generally increases the availability of vegetables and leafy greens on the local and regional market, thus supporting more nutritious diets not only for farmers themselves, but communities in general. Achieving greater gender equality through irrigation production is also possible, but requires support for empowering women farmers. ILSSI has focused on the value chain for irrigated fodder, which is showing promise, particularly in Ethiopia, to provide animal feed at critical times.

More food and better lives

As men and women farmers make the transition from rainfed to supplemental and dry season irrigated production, ILSSI has tested new tools, technologies and practices to enhance water productivity, boost agricultural yields, improve health and nutrition, strengthen farmers’ resilience and promote gender equality.

  • Conservation agriculture practices and small-scale irrigation can reduce the risks of water scarcity and meet growing food demand. These methods also improve quality and yields of produce at the same time.
  • Solar pumps for water lifting can bring down costs of irrigation for farmers living in rural areas and are a preferred technology for agriculture and domestic uses. ILSSI has supported the development of an open access, interactive tool for solar suitability mapping throughout sub-Saharan Africa, which is now enabling companies to know where solar pumping would be suitable, reducing the risks of investing in frontier markets, and helping NGOs and donors target solar irrigation interventions.
  • Irrigation scheduling tools can enable farmers to achieve higher water productivity and reduce their labor input by showing when to irrigate and how much water to use. Such tools can also increase farmers’ yields and boost the quality of produce. The use of these water-scheduling tools is being taken forward by donors, including in an FAO-funded project with water user associations in Ethiopia, reaching more than 600 farmers.
  • Fodder for livestock can be supported by small-scale irrigation, and it can help farmers diversify their incomes while securing adequate animal-sourced foods, such as milk, for their families. Promising results are drawing the attention of farmers and government officials in Ethiopia.
  • Irrigation can improve nutrition through multiple pathways. ILSSI partners and researchers have been working with the World Bank to support nutrition-sensitive irrigation investments.
  • Improving access to credit would allow even more farmers to benefit from small-scale irrigation. Microfinance options that could support smallholders to access pumps and other equipment do exist, including new ideas such as “Uber for the farm”, but need to be brought to scale.
  • Realizing the full potential of small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa requires improving gender equality in agriculture. Not only in terms of access to technologies and equipment; it also means ensuring that women can reap the benefits of irrigation.

Taking solutions forward

Building on research from its first phase (2014–2018), ILSSI is now investigating how to feasibly and sustainably expand small-scale irrigation and is directing more resources to improving access and adoption through market systems. ILSSI is partnering with private companies in Ghana and Ethiopia to test ways to build input and output markets around irrigated value chains to establish affordable, reliable supply for example pumps and to foster a viable, healthy market for irrigated crops such as vegetables and seeds. Solar pumps will be a central technology, along with the critical component of appropriate credit and finance – all part of effective and sustainable business models. We are also partnering with small and medium enterprises and cooperatives in Ethiopia to strengthen irrigated fodder production and markets, and examining irrigated seed production for vegetables. Business models that promote gender equity and opportunities for youth are also being sharpened.

Small-scale irrigation technology and water resources may be primarily used for agriculture, but also provide water for consumptive and non-consumptive uses. ILSSI is working with the Household Water Insecurity Experiences network on the effects of water access for productive uses, on domestic and other uses, toward reducing water insecurity. Our focus continues to be farmers’ own irrigation investments, while also deepening our analysis of the changing climate and water-related risks from household to watershed and basin level to increase both environmental and social resilience.


The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation began in 2013 and was extended to 2023. The program is led by the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A & M University with leading African universities and international agricultural research institutions as partners, including the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) – Research Coordination Network (RCN), and the World Vegetable Center. ILSSI primarily works in Sub-Saharan Africa – Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, and Tanzania – and is currently looking at opportunities to expand to other countries. In addition to conducting research, ILSSI also strengthens individual and institutional capacity in small scale irrigation and water resource management.