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The right direction: prospects for sub-Saharan Africa

For smallholder irrigation development to succeed in sub-Saharan Africa experience shows that several broad issues must be addressed.

Of particular importance is the need to strengthen and sustain the education and training of professionals, technicians and ultimately farming communities. Only by developing the skills and broadening the experience of the farmers, and the institutions created to support them, can the benefits offered by technological innovation be taken advantage of.

Developing human resources

Training in irrigated agriculture is a wide and complex issue. It is raised here in the context of irrigation technology, i.e. as it concerns the planning, design, construction and maintenance of irrigation schemes. FAO (1985) identified the problems of human resources development in irrigation and the dearth of experienced people across the irrigation sector that can put plans into action. Moris (1984) also refers to the lack of suitable training at the smallholder level, particularly in water control and management and emphasises the need for training both of farmers and government personnel. A review of IFAD's experience over the past 20 years or so highlights a serious shortage of suitably trained irrigation engineers and technicians who could undertake design work and supervise the construction properly to produce sound engineering works as the principal reason for much of the poor engineering on schemes. It would appear that the situation has not generally improved over the past 15 years.

A lack of skills?

This is not an overstatement of affairs. An engineer-agronomist told the anthropologist that he worked in close collaboration with the farmers every time he went out in the field. By this he meant that he was accompanied by the manager of the perimeter and the head of the county government. In another instance, at the introductory meeting of experts who were going to work together on an irrigation project, she was introduced for the first time to the irrigation engineer who said, as we shook hands, `What are you doing here, we don't need you. We know everything we need to know about the farmers'.

Anthropologists or sociologists hired for project teams are often either geographic specialists who know the area but not irrigation and are unaware of the precise information technicians need to make decisions, or they know irrigation but not the geographical area and so they do not understand the local farmers' interests and social, economic and agronomic constraints. Both options give disappointing results. Technicians and geographically specialized sociologists need to work more closely together so that the sociologists understand clearly the kinds of information that will be useful to the technicians.

From Brown and Nooter (1992)

It is difficult to attract people into irrigation for a variety of reasons and it can take many years for individuals to build up sufficient experience for this work. There are not enough people having the technical skills and experience to design and build schemes properly and who have sufficient experience in participatory methods. There are also too many examples of inappropriate training of technicians. Many are still learning about sophisticated technologies practised in the United States because this is what their teachers learned. Too many instructors are more concerned about showing what they know rather than getting good ideas across. Too much training is done in the classroom and not enough in the field. Too many technicians lack the skills to work closely with farmers and assume that communication is about telling farmers what to do rather than listening.

For smallholder irrigation to develop it will be essential for each country to undertake a study of labour requirements to assess the supply and demand for trained people. Demand is based on the expected growth rates in irrigation and the supply of trained people at all levels is based on the output from both the institutional and in-service training arrangements. Rather than perpetuating the `sabre0tooth tiger' curriculum support is needed to establish appropriate institutional and in-service training programmes that properly equip people for the jobs they must do. With wider acceptance and application of appropriate irrigation technologies smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa may then be in a position to increase crop production and in this way improve their rural livelihoods.

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