Impressive project findings from the use of the two synergistic interventions – Smart Water Management tools and Agricultural Innovation Platforms – published in the special Issue of the International Journal of Water Resources Development reveal big gains accrued from using simple technologies embedded in a wider learning environment. Some of the immediate outcomes reported from project sites in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe pointed to increased crop yields ranging from 28-313 %, income increase of 43-94% in farmer households, 43–60% increase in off-farm income due to less time spent irrigating and 40–85% of farmers reducing their irrigation frequency.
The research for development project titled “Transforming smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems through outscaling in southern Africa (TISA)” is based on the premise that the transition from subsistence- to business-focused farming is essential to maintain infrastructure for sustainable irrigation. To achieve this, it is critical to consider irrigation schemes as complex systems, where simple linear interventions will not result in sustained development, and working exclusively with farmers is insufficient. It is critical to identify the most effective leverage points in these systems to start the process of change at the scheme level and interact with higher political levels to support systemic change.
The project utilized two separate interventions to investigate what leverage points could change farmer behaviors to transform schemes with continuous improvement for profitability and sustainability:
- Introducing Smart Water Management tools (the Chameleon and the FullStop Wetting Front Detector) to facilitate farmer’s learning about soil moisture and nutrient management; and
- Agricultural Innovation Platforms to bring together irrigators and stakeholders to generate a vision for the scheme and identify barriers to higher profitability, actions to overcome them and who to best implement them.
This is the project’s second special issue, following on the first issue that was published in 2017. The agricultural water management research presented in this second special issue shows that application of simple-to-use soil monitoring tools provided critical information for farmer learning, facilitating decision-making and learning about soil-water-nutrient dynamics that led to improved water productivity. The farmers increased their crop production using the tools and better irrigation infrastructure. Learning was a critical contributor to the project’s impacts with individual farmers learning by holding soil monitoring tools in their hands, making immediate and informed decisions. This led to experimentation and further adaptation. Farmers retained nutrients in the root zone by reducing irrigation frequency, number of siphons, and event duration.
The Agricultural Innovation Platform processes reinforced this learning and innovation by connecting farmers to new information sources as well as to input and output markets, leading to increased farmers’ income and overall well-being. At other scales, farmer organizations and local governments learnt, as did extension officers and government officials, leading to systemic changes.
Together, these interventions fostered the development of positive feedback loops in the complex irrigation systems. To bring about large-scale systemic changes in smallholder irrigation in Africa, there must be a move from linear technical approaches (such as fixing hardware only) towards more holistic systems approaches that require understanding the incentives for change (for all actors, but farmers in particular). This project clearly illustrates that there are relatively simple interventions to increase water productivity, reduce nutrient leaching, and increase crop yields and profitability, but only if these technologies are embedded in a wider learning environment where other important feedback mechanisms, such as labor constraints and market opportunities, are addressed.