Farmer-led irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa: synthesis of current understandings

Research reports and studies
July 2019
Steve Wiggins and Bruce Lankford

Interest in irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa has revived since 2000, in line with the revival of interest in agricultural development and food security in general. Compared to Asia, where more than one-third of cultivated land is irrigated, official records for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) show corresponding statistics of just 4% to 6% of cultivated land irrigated. To meet Africa’s food needs in 2050 without increased imports will almost certainly require a considerable expansion of irrigation.

At first sight, given the small fraction of agricultural land irrigated at present and considerable unused water sources, there should be scope for expansion. To do so, however, is challenging, whether irrigation is promulgated by farmers or governments, as this report will show.

This report focuses on irrigation initiated by smallholders, 'farmer-led irrigation' (FLI). Most farmers in SSA are smallholders, and much of the increased area under irrigation seen in the new century has come from FLI, rather than from public schemes or the irrigation on large commercial farms.

The report addresses the following questions:

  • What is known about the extent of FLI in sub-Saharan Africa in the 2010s? What has been developed, and how?
  • How successful has FLI been? What problems arise? How do such developments compare to irrigation that has been initiated by public authorities?
  • How has public policy either assisted or hindered FLI? What are the lessons for policymakers?

This synthesis brings together findings from research conducted under the DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme (DEGRP) with the wider literature on irrigation in SSA, especially relatively recent findings.