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Drip irrigation: Game changer for Malawi agriculture

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With Malawi struggling to feed her 16 million people, largely as a result of poor and erratic rains due to effects of climate change, water harvesting and irrigation are seen as the way to go.

However, of the 400,000 hectares of land that are available for irrigation, only 77,000 are being utilized, representing 25 percent of total land that offers potential for irrigation. This has become a matter of concern for the agricultural sector that has often looked at irrigation as a way out of over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture.

Currently, Malawi largely relies on canal-fed irrigation, sprinkler and the labour intensive treadle pump technology. Both are known for their reliance on huge volumes of water and wastage.

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In countries where irrigation has widely been adopted, it is largely because the agricultural sector has been innovative and made reasonable investment. Today, in the advanced world, canal powered irrigation is just one of the many technologies for irrigation.

People now talk of drip irrigation – a very new phenomenon to Malawi and, thanks to development partners such as the Feed the Future Malawi Agriculture Diversification Activity (AgDiv), smallholder farmers in the country may soon taste the sweet fruit of such innovativeness.

With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), AgDiv, which seeks to improve household incomes and nutrition in eight districts of the country, has rolled out an ambitious initiative that is aimed at scaling up the use of the drip irrigation technology among smallholder farmers in Malawi.

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The technology entails applying water to individual plants in small, frequent quantities through a network of perforated plastic pipes and emitters, and uses 35-50 percent less water than other types of irrigation.

Owing to seemingly higher initial investment capital per acre, drip irrigation has largely been used at commercial farms. However, the technology’s eventual benefits are high and AgDiv, working with partners in the agriculture sector, is scaling up the technology to benefit more smallholder farmers in the eight districts of Lilongwe rural, Blantyre rural, Mchinji, Dedza, Ntcheu, Balaka, Machinga and Mangochi.

Government, which encourages the adoption of proven and safe technologies with potential to boost production in the agricultural sector, has since hailed the initiative and offered technical expertise through its robust extension service network, if what the Deputy Director of Irrigation Services in the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Water Development, Geoffrey Mwepa said in Lilongwe recently is anything to go by.

“The technology is in line with the government agenda for achieving food security in the country and we urge for its adoption among our farmers,” Mwepa said.

He was officially opening a training workshop for partner organisations on the use of the technology. The training also marked the rolling

out of the initiative by AgDiv.

Government is aware of the high investment costs for a vibrant irrigation system. It is not surprising therefore, that initiatives by development partners promoting new technologies in the sector beyond traditional canals have stimulated interest among stakeholders, including government.

Said Mwepa: “It is encouraging to see that development partners are working towards taking the benefits of drip irrigation to smallholder farmers.”

In Israel, drip irrigation has proven to be the game-changer. With limited water resources, the use of drip technology has ensured efficient use of water. Natfin, pioneer of drip irrigation in Israel, is partnering AgDiv in supplying drip kits to ensure they are accessible to Malawian farmers.

Through the up scaling of drip technology, AgDiv hopes to build farmers’ resilience to climate change shocks.

Says AgDiv’s Chief of Party, Carl Larkins: “Farmers using drip are not dependent on rainfall, especially during the critical planting time. The smart application of drip irrigation will also allow farmers to grow a much wider variety of crops throughout the year. This allows farmers to break free from being totally dependent on a single harvest for their yearly income and food.”

AgDiv’s goal is to introduce drip irrigation across the agricultural sector. To achieve this, each phase of the rollout will focus on leveraging the networks of strategic partners to demonstrate drip irrigation to every type of farmer.

As the seasons progress, says Larkins, AgDiv’s interventions will penetrate deeper into the sector and reach an ever-increasing number of farmers. Initially, ten one-hectare demonstration sites will be set up with anchor farms, out-growers, seed companies, research stations, and at the community level.

“These sites will be the first exposure to drip irrigation for many farmers,” he says.

Following this, AgDiv will work to set up drip irrigation on farmers’ fields with sizes ranging from 250 m2 to 1 ha. These kits will be set up through grant partners and allow AgDiv to demonstrate drip irrigation in a wide variety of set up and under various management practices.

Alongside this, AgDiv will work with large private companies and drip irrigation suppliers to set up large scale farms that will serve as the basis for commercial drip irrigation, but also as centers of excellence and expertise.

As an extension, AgDiv will work with private companies to set up distribution networks for drip irrigation and synergistic solar pumping solutions.

The whole arrangement is being supported by community level extension, enabling farmers to use drip irrigation to its full potential. AgDiv will support all strategic partners with ToTs on drip, enabling their existing extension personnel to disseminate the necessary training across their network of farmers.

The rollout will be conducted alongside a robust research process that will progress from data collection to cost-benefit analysis on drip irrigation. This will allow AgDiv to develop financial models and tools that will help farmers of all sizes to access drip irrigation on the open market, following the end of AgDiv’s activities.

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