Successful irrigated agriculture depends on more than farmers and technology. It needs a robust business ecosystem surrounding it, too. University of Nebraska researchers are aiming to build on an already established toehold in Rwanda to study and support those ecosystems elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Earlier this year, researchers affiliated with the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute received a three-year, $1 million grant from the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development to advance access and education around smallholder farmer irrigation in the region.
Expanding sustainable irrigated agriculture is an important pathway to improved food and nutritional security and resilient rural economies, which are critical in light of the need to feed a growing world population amid climate change, said Nicholas Brozovic, DWFI’s director of policy and University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor of agricultural economics.
In Africa, irrigation adoption has lagged behind other regions. Existing irrigation systems may be outdated because of lack of timely repair and maintenance. Also, the performance of water users’ associations has been lower than expected. Many studies have focused on analyzing the profitability of irrigation after it has been provided to farmers, without considering the potential difficulties related to customer needs, marketing channels, customer acquisition, training and the supply chains for spare parts and expertise.
Brozovic, the grant’s principal investigator, said the project reflects this shift in thinking about how to improve irrigated agriculture in the developing world. In the past, “we’ve tended to focus on getting the technology into the hands of the farmer,” he said.
“The demand right now is to understand the business models used to help small farmers access irrigation and what’s working well, why it’s working and how might we transfer lessons from one country to another.”
The “entry point” of the project is not the farmer, but rather the other people in the broader agricultural system, including the supply and marketing chains, Brozovic said.
“To understand scaling and sustainability of farmer-led irrigation, we must take the point of view not just of the farmer, but also of all the enterprises for whom farmers are customers and the enterprises supporting them,” Brozovic wrote last year in an article published on Medium.
“If we want farmer-led irrigation to scale and to be sustainable, then all parts of that larger entrepreneurial ecosystem must make enough money to provide decent livelihoods for the people involved. That includes, of course, the farmers themselves.”
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln has a long-term engagement in Rwanda, including support of the new Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture. DWFI has built on that engagement and has been working in Rwanda for several years. The new funding will enable the institute to expand to five other countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia, Burundi, Senegal, Niger and The Gambia.
“The idea is we’re now going to take similar approaches in the five other countries,” Brozovic said. “In each of those countries, we’ll start by studying the entrepreneurial ecosystem around irrigation. We’ll do some very detailed studies on what’s happening; how farmers are getting irrigation; what’s working; what isn’t working; where’s the cutting edge of the innovation; how does government policy support that innovation; and (potential) cases where the policy is obstructing it. How can we provide business training, entrepreneurial training, capacity building?”
Ultimately, three countries will be identified for a “deeper dive” involving more study and training. New irrigation business models will be tested and potentially scaled up for use in the region.
Current travel restrictions will complicate the work, but Brozovic sees an opportunity there, too. His team plans to produce a series of multilingual programs and trainings, using platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp, by tapping into the cultural knowledge and digital skillsets of Rwandan experts, as well as other partners in each project country. Leveraging those technologies and talent, the team hopes to reach many more people from around the world than they could in face-to-face workshops.