New guide supports a turn in public investment in African irrigation

Published on
April 6, 2021

The World Bank launches a guide to support Farmer-led Irrigation Development (FLID). Dr. Gert Jan Veldwisch, one of its lead authors, has been central in studying this revolution unfolding across Africa.

About the guide

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The launch of the FLIDguide is an illustration of a radical turn in public investment in African irrigation, following several years of intensive research showing how farmers are developing large areas of irrigated agriculture, often unnoticed to the professional eye. The guide’s approach casts intervenors as temporary participants and aims to keep farmers firmly in the driver’s seat of development. It is widely welcomed for achieving outcomes that have direct impact on large numbers of people and can thus contribute towards “building back better” in the recovery from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, accompanying economic crises and climate change impacts.

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From about 2010 onwards Wageningen University staff as well as students observed repeatedly that farmers were developing substantial areas of irrigated agriculture in a wide variety of agro-ecological contexts across Africa. At the time, these processes were hardly noticed by governments or development agencies, let alone recorded in statistics or actively supported. In 2014 Veldwisch and colleagues published a scientific article in which they coined the term Farmer-led Irrigation Development (FLID) to indicate processes where smallholder farmers developed, sustained and expanded irrigated agriculture by themselves, often with minimal, or without, external support (Nkoka et al., 2014). In collaboration with Resilience BV, a Wageningen-based consultancy company, a methodology was developed to map irrigated areas by means of a participatory methodology and demonstrated that the actually irrigated area was likely several times larger than officially documented (Beekman et al., 2014).

This initial work on FLID processes inspired the formation of two academic research projects, respectively funded by the British Economic and Social Sciences Research Council (ESRC) and the Dutch Research Council (NWO). Through these projects Wageningen University expanded its network of collaborating partners to include several universities in both Europe and Africa, private companies and NGOs. The research resulted in a well-founded understanding of the nature and extent of FLID processes in Africa. A key article in the prestigious Journal of Peasant Studies (Woodhouse et al., 2017) drew a lot of attention by both academics and policy makers, paving the way for a Special Issue in the journal Water Alternatives (Veldwisch et al. 2019).

In 2015, inspired by the early research findings, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kenya financed a 6 million euro programme to support farmer-led irrigation development: the Smart Water for Agriculture project (SWA). As a knowledge partner Wageningen University played a lead role in the development and implementation of the initial assessments and assisted in documentation of the lessons learnt.

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In February 2018 Veldwisch co-organised a weeklong retreat between 10 leading scientists and 10 high level policy makers, for which they secured funding by the Rockefeller Foundation, which hosted them at their ‘Bellagio Centre’ in Italy. The network built during this week turned out to be pivotal for gaining further momentum for understanding FLID and realising its potential for expanding irrigation in Africa. Later in 2018 the Water for Food International Forum, annually organised at the World Bank headquarters, adopted FLID as its main topic. Also the Africa Green Revolution Forum of that year was dedicated to FLID and several African countries and international organisation pledged to fast-track access to irrigation through supporting FLID. Directly building on Wageningen research, the African Union made supporting FLID one of the four pathways in its continental framework for irrigation development and agricultural water management (African Union, 2020).

African governments (e.g. in Uganda, Kenya, Niger) have started redirecting investments in line with the growing understanding of how FLID processes unfold and can benefit from external support. In several other countries (e.g. Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania) new FLID-support operations are being prepared. This increased the demand for evidence based, hands-on knowledge and a practical methodology to design such operations.

A comprehensive resource pack

The FLIDguide that is now published by the World Bank both speaks to that demand and makes use of experiences from the operations already in progress. The guide is a comprehensive in-depth Resource Pack (350 pages) that combines recent research results, a hands-on assessment framework, ideas for intervention and suggestions for how to mould those into a national-level operation. The good news: what decision-makers need to know is summarized in just 30 pages, well-laid-out and nicely illustrated. The rest are in-depth modules and other layers of detailed information in a highly interactive pdf-format with lots of cross-referencing.

The momentum for a change in policy narrative and the large amount of financial resources being directed towards creating enabling environments for FLID processes is encouraging. But, as stated in the guide: “the real measure of successful FLID operations will be when inclusive and dynamic farmer networks are initiated”.

References and projects mentioned

Izzi, G., J. Denison and G.J. Veldwisch, eds. 2021. The Farmer-led Irrigation Development Guide: A what, why and how-to for intervention design. Washington, DC: World Bank.

African Union (2020). Framework for Irrigation Development and Agricultural Water Management in Africa.

Beekman, W., Veldwisch, G. J., & Bolding, A. (2014). Identifying the potential for irrigation development in Mozambique: Capitalizing on the drivers behind farmer-led irrigation expansion. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 76, 54-63.

Nkoka, F., Veldwisch, G. J. A., & Bolding, J. A. (2014). Organisational modalities of farmer-led irrigation development in Tsangano District, Mozambique. Water Alternatives, 7(2), 414-433.

Veldwisch, G. J., Venot, J. P., Woodhouse, P., Komakech, H. C., & Brockington, D. (2019). Re-introducing politics in African farmer-led irrigation development: Introduction to a special issue. Water alternatives, 12(1), 1-12.

Woodhouse, P., Veldwisch, G. J., Venot, J. P., Brockington, D., Komakech, H., & Manjichi, Â. (2017). African farmer-led irrigation development: re-framing agricultural policy and investment?. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44(1), 213-233.

Smart Water for Agriculture (2016-2019). Funded by: Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kenya. Budget: 6 million euro. Lead: SNV.

Unravelling the potential of farmer-led irrigation development in the BAGC, Mozambique. (2016-2019). Funded by: Dutch Research Council (NWO). Lead: Resilience BV.

Farmer-led irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa (SAFI) (2015-2018). Funded by: Economic and Social Sciences Research Council of the UK (ESRC). Lead: Manchester University.