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Potential for small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa: The Kenyan example, R. Purcell

R. Purcell
IPTRID Program Manager, World Bank, Washington D. C., USA

FAO/IPTRID missions have found that lower-cost, more water-efficient irrigation technologies have the potential to greatly expand small-scale irrigation in East and Southern Africa and significantly improve food security and family incomes. Kenya is doing better than most other countries in the sub-region in developing and adopting these technologies. There, supplementary irrigation is transforming subsistence farmers into commercial agents. The opportunities and constraints faced by Kenya in revolutionizing small farming through better irrigation technologies provide some important lessons to other countries and to the donor community about how to proceed along this "new frontier". This brief presentation is meant to highlight a few of these lessons.


Traditional irrigation in Kenya dates back some 400 years, longer than that of most countries in East and Southern Africa. Today, Kenya is well ahead of other countries in the sub-region in utilizing low-cost technologies for small-scale irrigation (defined here as irrigation on small plots where farmers have the major controlling influence and using a level of technology which farmers can effectively operate and maintain - Carter, 1994).

Kenya's total irrigated area is about 80 000 hectares. Public and private small-scale irrigation is still less than 50 000 ha. This is still very small compared to the estimated potential of more than 300 000 ha.

Many different technologies and techniques are used for water collection and distribution for small-scale irrigation in Kenya, including rainwater harvesting, bucket irrigation, gravity fed sprinkler and drip, treadle and pedal pumps, rope and washer, motorized pumps, windpower and construction of small earthen dams.

Inexpensive and simple gravity and pump sprinkler systems for horticultural crops have been extremely profitable investments. Their numbers are growing fast in high-potential areas such as on the slopes of Mt. Kenya where commercialization of horticultural crops for domestic and international markets is in full swing. However, the spread of this technology to cover most of the estimated potential irrigated area is limited by physical conditions and increasing competition for water.

Interestingly, irrigation development on the slopes of Mt. Kenya first began when families started developing the mountain's streams for domestic water supply. Farmers quickly tapped into the cement and PVC pipe conveyance systems with additional piping and sprinkler distribution, often using locally made "Juakali" sprinkler units produced in the nearby towns and sold for about $2 each.

Use of the pedal pump on valley bottoms is also growing fast. The pedal pump is an adaptation of the Asian treadle pump by a local NGO (Approtech). Basically, a Bangladeshi/Indian treadle pump has been reconfigured into a lighter, portable pedal pump. Nicknamed the "Moneymaker," these sell for about US$70 and are actively marketed in towns and villages. The pump is most appropriate for smaller, subsistence farmers who see the opportunity to expand irrigation on small plots by 50 percent more than their existing irrigated area. While US$70 may appear expensive, most of these farmers have an extended family network in the village and nearby towns from whom they are able to borrow.

Over a two-month period in 1996, when the pedal pump was introduced, Approtech sold more than 300 pumps and has had difficulty keeping up with demand. At the moment, local contractors can make only about 100 units a month. Approtech hopes to provide technical support services and credit to raise production capacity to about 500 pumps a month over the next two years.

Low horsepower, diesel pumps are also very popular among farmers who can afford them, especially those growing French beans, snow peas and other crops for export. The engines are imported (some of the housing is locally cast) and the pumps are not inexpensive -typically selling for US$700-US$900 for 3-5 hp pumps.

There may be opportunities for farmers to band together and collect savings to buy and share more expensive equipment. However, while farmers in Kenya often pool their resources to pay for conveyance systems, they are extremely reluctant to share pumps.


Farmers who are using the technologies described above are doing very well - the sprinkler and engine users in absolute terms, but the pedal pump users are also relatively much better off. Women, who do most of the field work, are gaining greater earning power. In addition, the success of the pump technology is attracting a younger generation back to the farms. One young farmer had just completed police training camp only to return to his small family plot to grow French beans and onions.

The income gains from commercialized farming through small-scale irrigation in Kenya are impressive. The average smallholder on 2-3 ha of rainfed land makes less than US$ 750 farm income. Compare this with per hectare gross margins of US$ 1 400 for snow peas and French beans, US$ 450 for kale and US$ 600 for onions. These farmers get 2-3 crops a year.


Given the above figures, why is there no revolution in pump technology and small-scale irrigation in Kenya and elsewhere in the sub-region? The answer is that the constraints remain daunting. The constraints are presented in order of importance, first from the farmers' perspective and then from the manufacturers'.

1) Financing: Equipment costs, especially motorized pumps, are still high. Most equipment require a substantial cash outlay. Small farmers do not have collateral to safeguard loans either from the government agricultural finance corporation or from commercial banks. NGOs have in recent years, provided small loans to groups whose collateral is peer pressure, but these do not have sufficient capital to expand and probably cannot administer such loans profitably on a commercial basis (see the paper on SISDO).

2) Marketing: Crops are marketed in many ways: directly by farmers to consumers in local markets, through cooperatives, through middlemen, and through export contracts. Except when farmers have firm contracts with exporters, there are big risks. Market information is lacking so that farmers who transport their produce to a distant town may find the market flooded. There are serious problems with cooperatives that fail to pay farmers or are rife with mismanagement and sometimes corruption. There are problems with middlemen who take advantage of what has been a breakdown in the cooperative system in Kenya. These middlemen pay high prices to rope the seller in and then return the next season to pay low prices after the farmer has severed ties to traditional buyers. Middlemen are only taking advantage of government failure. Clearly, farmers need some protection, probably in the form of better market information.

Manufacturers of low-cost equipment face a host of problems. Overall, the government has put a lot of effort into crop and livestock research; much less effort has gone into support for agricultural engineering. Thus, knowledge and capacity for technology development and application are lacking. Furthermore, government policies and financing has favoured the development of a private sector that depends on expensive equipment imported from abroad. While there is impressive development of low-cost equipment by small-scale entrepreneurs, including the "Juakali" artisans producing equipment like low-pressure butterfly sprinklers and pedal pumps, this industry is handicapped by lack of access to credit and poor distribution systems. Overall, there remains little national awareness of innovative, lower-cost technologies and their possibilities. The pump importers are also severely handicapped by strict borrowing conditions, heavy income taxes, high cost of input materials (including high import duties), and restrictive import licensing. Marketing, distribution and servicing of equipment is poor. Pump breakdowns are a major problem; farmers are not trained to maintain pumps and do not generally carry spare parts.


This Workshop should principally address governments' role in overcoming these constraints and enhancing small-scale irrigation development and technology uptake by small industry and small farmers.

First, it should be stressed that the government does not have a very positive role to play in building and managing irrigation schemes, whether they be large or small. The Kenya experience demonstrates that farmers do much better when they build, own and operate the schemes themselves. Public, large and small schemes perform much more poorly than private schemes in which farmers feel they have more at risk. (Farmers begin with very high expectations in government-built schemes and are quickly disillusioned when things do not work and assistance is not forthcoming.)

The government does have a critical role to play in creating an enabling environment for technology development and uptake for small-scale irrigation.

· Government should develop policies and regulations that influence irrigation equipment manufacture, importation, promotion and servicing. Lower priced imports and joint manufacturing arrangements should be encouraged

· Government should develop policies and mechanisms to facilitate access to credit by small farmers.

· Government can also play a direct role in extension service training and provision of other technical support services, like training on small-dam construction, scheme design and the production of manuals for design and management of micro-dams and water diversion structures.

· Government can assist agricultural universities to strengthen their programmes on irrigation through short-courses and research and innovation grants.

· Government can assist in testing and demonstrating equipment at universities and demonstration centers.

· Government can mobilize real-time information on markets and convey it to farmers' associations and can facilitate the creation of farmer networks to disseminate and utilize such information. This is an extremely important function in countries like Kenya, with potentially large markets. However, the development of even rudimentary markets in countries like Malawi, where potential is smaller, is also critical.


It is hoped that in the group working sessions which are a part of this Workshop, specific ways in which government can act will be developed. Specific ways in which donors can assist (not only governments directly), but NGOs, the private sector and farmers themselves should also be recommended. Outline 3-4 pilot interventions in particular countries where the government and donors have particular interests. Think in innovative ways and realistically about what various actors can do to promote technology uptake.

For example, take the question of government capacity to support technology development and adoption. The absence of such capacity in almost every country in the sub-region is one of the biggest challenges in making a success of efforts in this Workshop and beyond.

Take a close look at this problem. In an environment where it is not realistic to think that there will be huge government budgets for increased capacity in areas like extension and technical support; where there may not be a standard package of technology to apply with one goal in mind - to maximize yield per unit of land for one or two stable crops; where farmers are not relying on agriculture for subsistence - how can farmers be supported? What lessons are there from other parts of Africa? Perhaps there are lessons from Kenyan farmers who receive support services through their export agents? Perhaps there are lessons from Zimbabwe where some farmer organizations provide their own services. Perhaps, too, think of examples from developed countries where networks of farmers exchange information and expertise, led by the most progressive farmer and the one with the best-performing technology can be developed.


Populations throughout sub-Saharan Africa are growing. Traditional methods of support to agriculture have largely failed, and by the year 2025, there will be 1.2 thousand million people who will need 300 million tons of grain. How can an impact be made on irrigation, irrigation technology, associated support services and in other areas? Business as usual in technology generation and adoption, support services, marketing and credit has not worked on rainfed lands. What can be done differently in irrigation?

Today in Kenya, farmers want to overcome their traditional isolation. They want to know about useful technologies. They want them to be available and affordable. They want to be taught how to use them. What help can be provided? It is hoped that, over these next few days, some answers can be developed.

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