GFAR blog, Partnerships for impact

Stronger together: unlocking Africa’s food production potential

Kenyan farmers posing with a solar irrigation pump.
Kenyan farmers posing with a solar irrigation pump

Africa is developing fast. Growing economies, burgeoning middle classes and a booming technology industry are all propelling the continent forward. However, the agricultural sector still lags far behind many other sectors, in part due to underutilized water resources.

African countries are some of the least irrigated in the world. Less than 4 percent of the area under agricultural cultivation is irrigated. This is despite an estimated 39 million hectares being suitable  and current groundwater use accounting for less than 20 percent of the available supply.

These are average numbers, but if lack of water resources is not the issue in many areas, then what can we do differently to realize Africa’s food production potential and increase farmers’ resilience to drought?

Water management solutions for intensification already exist

Interventions aimed at making water more accessible for sustainable intensification of agriculture already exist, and they could be put into use immediately. However, such action would require aligning policy initiatives, management systems, and technical capacity. These were key messages conveyed by my colleagues from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) when they presented recent research initiatives and solutions during Africa Water Week.

For example, an IWMI-led research project showed thatinvestments in motorized pumps could benefit 185 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, generating net revenues of up to US$22 billion per year. Not only could investments in this relatively simple technology improve food security locally and across the continent, researchers now  see evidence that such investments could generate other potential benefits, including improved nutrition, health, and resilience to climate shocks.

Along with its many partners, IWMI continues its work to develop and further such water management solutions, including through leading two newly launched initiatives: the Sustainable Irrigation Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa initiative (SIGISSA) and theGroundwater management solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP)

Other recent IWMI research has focused on how information and communication technology can support farmers to increase agricultural productivity. While we are only just beginning to understand the potential of this fast-moving technology, emerging applications already show great promise. For example, researchers have developed a new app for handheld devices, called WetIn, which can provide users with early flood warnings for the Niger-Benue river systems in Nigeria. As management information becomes more widely available, so expectations will rise on how resources are managed.

Commitment to sustainability is essential

While the presentations my colleagues gave during Africa Water Week focused on existing and potential solutions, responses from the audience quickly narrowed in on related questions: How do we ensure that solutions are truly sustainable, what can we do to make solutions as farmer friendly as possible, and, how do we move from promising research tools to widespread implementation?

First, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched last year, provide a very relevant entry point for scaling up water management solutions. Increasing the area of rainfed production that can access partial irrigation as well as expanding areas with year-round irrigation will help African countries achieve the SDGs of ending poverty and hunger. Providing such support is a stated objective of the SIGSSA initiative.

Second, there is an emerging recognition that the SDGs are interconnected, and that attaining them will require navigating trade-offs and building on synergies. Water management solutions will be central to achieving many SDG targets, inevitably placing more pressure on the resource. To achieve truly sustainable water solutions in Africa and avoid the over-exploitation seen in many other parts of the world, we will need better knowledge of the availability of water—particularly groundwater—and creative, effective water management practices.

We can bridge the gap between research and implementation

Ensuring that potential water solutions resonate with farmers’ interests will also be essential for wide-scale uptake. As pointed out by audience members at AWW, technology will be irrelevant unless it is both affordable and culturally appropriate. Therefore, participatory research is fundamental to ensuring the usability of solutions. Collaborating with and learning from the intended users from the very beginning of the development process should always be a priority.

Read more:

Africa Water Week presentations on SIGISSA and GRIPP

a presentation on WetIn and information technology, also from Africa Water Week 

This blog post by Jeremy Bird was originally published on the WLE Thrive Blog and is being included as part of GFAR’s Partner Spotlight of the International Water Management Institute. For more information on the Partners in GFAR, and to become a Partner, visit the GFAR website!

Photo Credit: Adam Öjdahl / IWMI

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