By Jerome Bossuet
Tonight almost one billion people will go to bed hungry. Frequent drought spells, pressures on land and water resources and sharply rising food prices make it harder to change that.
Fearing a repeat of hunger riots around the world in 2007-2008, international policymakers are putting agriculture high on the agenda. The G20 agriculture meeting in Paris in June issued an action plan aimed at increasing global agricultural production by 70 percent in the next four decades in order to address the challenge of trying to feed an expected 9 billion people by 2050 – a challenge that is growing harder with climate change.
One priority target to boost world food security should be the millions of smallholder farmers in developing countries who live on less than two hectares – some of the poorest people on the globe.
One reason these farmers face low yields and poverty is their difficult access to water, which forces them to rely mostly on rain-fed crops and exposes them to drought. The promotion of low-cost, small-scale irrigation equipment could be the solution.
The African market garden, developed by the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) together with the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC) shows how such irrigation is working for farmers in West Africa.
Farmers in this sub-Saharan region grow rain-fed staple crops like millet, but enjoy a rainy seasons lasting at most three to six months. Rainfall is highly variable, which makes their crops subject to climate risk and gives them very low returns.
Only 4 percent of cropland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated. In a region where staple crop harvests fail twice every five years, the use of micro irrigation has helped farmers get two crops each year and improve their incomes by planting high-value vegetables or fruits. Growing varied, nutrient-rich crops also helps diversify the diet of the farmers themselves.
In 2010, more than 2,500 African market gardens were in use in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin.
MORE CROP PER DROP
The African market garden is a vegetable production kit that relies on low-pressure drip irrigation. Applying just enough water, drop by drop, at the roots of the plants can cut water use by 80 percent. With this precise irrigation, there are also fewer weeds and pests, meaning less labor, fertilizer and pesticide use.
Using lower-pressure irrigation also means using less energy to pump water. A recent assessment showed that yields can double with this irrigation system.
Access to improved and diverse vegetable varieties and appropriate extension help is essential for farmers to take advantage of the market garden system. Cultivating heat tolerant vegetables like early maturing okra can help farmers make efficient use of water resources. And farmers can make profits of up to $1,000 a year on a 500-square-metre plot, in a region where the average daily wage is about a dollar.
This irrigation technology is particularly accessible for women and can help them gain economic autonomy. One group of 120 landless women in Niger was given the use of community wasteland. They set up market gardens on the barren land and reaped nutritious food and a healthy incomes from a plot that was otherwise seen as useless.
One issue with irrigated market gardens is the energy required for pumping water. Usually, farmers use diesel pumps but fuel prices can be prohibitive. However, as the cost of photovoltaic components has fallen sharply in past years, solar water pumping is becoming more affordable. SELF has been working with ICRISAT on solar market gardens. Its pumps have a higher initial cost but low operational and maintenance costs, making them economically interesting for farmers’ groups.
The African market garden and its solar version demonstrate the potential of micro irrigation to reduce poverty and food insecurity in Africa. But how can we scale up this technology from pilot NGO projects to widespread adoption across sub-Saharan Africa?
HOW TO SCALE UP?
The answer can perhaps be found in India where an NGO, International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), has already gotten out affordable irrigation technology, such as foot-operated pumps and low pressure drip irrigation kits, to over a million smallholder farmers across the country.
IDEI has developed irrigation equipment carefully designed to be affordable and adapted to the small scale of farm plots without compromising on quality. A treadle pumps costs just $12 or $13, with a one-year warranty and local maintenance. Drip systems can be customized for plots as small as 20 square meters.
On average, the smallholder farmer buying IDEI’s micro irrigation equipment earns an extra $400 a year on a quarter-acre plot. With treadle pumps lasting eight years and drip irrigation systems at least three to four years, that translates to a durable impact on the farmer’s lives.
But the most remarkable innovation of IDEI is not technological. It is the way they mass market their “Krishak Bandhu” (meaning farmer’s friend) branded technology to remote, poor and low-educated rural farmers.
IDEI produces Bollywood-style movies with well-known local actors to colourfully illustrate how a poor farmer might escape poverty thanks to the micro-irrigation equipment. Using a mobile cinema van, the movies are then shown in open air screenings in remote villages and followed up the next day with live demonstrations of the technology.
IDEI also develops a local supply chain by identifying and training individual entrepreneurs (local manufacturers, dealers and village mechanics) to sell, install and ensure after-sales maintenance. This decentralized approach supports the local economy and ensures their ownership of the technology.
The key to success is to consider a poor smallholder farmer as a potential entrepreneur and client - not always as an aid recipient, though initial financial support is necessary to create local demand and set up the supply chain.
The impact of the African market garden and Krishak Bandhu on poor farmers’ lives is a clear message that an international community struggling to deal with hunger and poverty should first focus their efforts on solutions adapted to smallholder farmers.
Jerome Bossuet is a communications specialist for ICRISAT.