Kenya needs to grow more food: a focus on how to irrigate its vast dry areas is key
What are the drivers of farmer-led irrigation?
Kenya is urbanizing rapidly. Urbanization is associated with higher incomes and changing lifestyles. Food preferences shift towards high-value products like meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables.
The changes in food preferences have expanded markets for crops from irrigated agriculture. High-value crops are generally fresh produce sold off-season, when the price is highest. These require irrigation, which presents an opportunity to introduce new technologies like energy-efficient solar pumps and improved water application systems.
Smallholder, market-oriented producers have been at the forefront of irrigation expansion across Africa over the last two decades.
Based on my research, there are four main drivers of farmer-led irrigation in Kenya:
availability of appropriate and affordable irrigation technologies
access to finance
favorable prices paid to farmers.
Others are ease of access to information, a well-developed mobile money transfer system and relatively well-educated farmers willing to invest in irrigated agriculture.
What should be done to expand irrigation?
There is huge scope for irrigation expansion in Kenya through farmer-led initiatives and private financing. Where individuals and small groups make their own investments to advance irrigation, they record better success rates and fewer failures than the large public sector schemes.
Farmer-led irrigation development is entrepreneurial, self-financing and market-oriented. Therefore, it requires these low-cost interventions.
Policy support: there is a need to assess the extent of farmer-led irrigation in the country. This should include mapping to explore its impacts and opportunities for upscaling and possible policy support. Being “invisible,” the sector currently misses out on various subsidies, incentives and opportunities that are available for publicly funded schemes in Kenya. It is necessary to deliberately channel resources to support farmer-led irrigation through projects, subsidies, incentives, capacity building and access to information for farmers.
Efficient water systems: in the past, irrigation schemes were designed with little concern for water wastage. But as water scarcity becomes more acute, there is a need to improve the water productivity of crops and the overall efficiency of irrigation.
Institutional support: farmer-led irrigation needs institutional support in areas like design (water pans, wells and gravity diversion works), efficiency, productivity and economic return analysis.
Research support: research will guide policymakers and other actors in the irrigated agriculture space. At the moment, data is scanty.