May 20, 2014

Commentary - We need to irrigate Africa: Why and How

By Nick Moon, Founding Director, KickStart International

This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 22.


Because 95% of African agriculture is rainfed. So where there is only one rainy season farms are productive only 4 months of the year; where there are two only for 8 months. So farmers have nothing much to do a lot of the time. What a waste. And with rainfed production, everyone harvests and sells at the same time. So the prices fall through the floor. And a lot of food is wasted. Then 3 months later, the same farmers need to buy food and find the prices have gone through the roof. So they stay poor and never have enough to purchase adequate inputs for the next rainy season. This feast-famine production cycle is totally out of whack with demand, which is constant and growing. Production should be in synch with demand – think “just in time”. How do you do that? You irrigate – wherever you can. Irrigate and you:

  • Produce food all year round, timing production to meet market demand
  • Achieve higher yields
  • Grow higher value crops  - market value and nutritional value

How? Where will the water come from?

Contrary to common impression, there is plenty of water in Africa. Enough rain falls on the continent in a year to satisfy the water needs of 9 billion people. The challenge is to manage it -  to capture, store, distribute and use it judiciously.

Where does all the water go when it rains ? Rivers, lakes and other surface water are the most visible. But most of it goes underground, just under it, forming shallow aquifers.  In many parts of Sub Saharan Africa, the parts where most people live, you can dig or drill a hole and there it is. 10 feet,  20 – 30 ….. 100ft below your farm. And this shallow groundwater replenishes every time it rains. It is a renewable resource.  So we can use it, to irrigate Africa.

But wouldn’t that be hugely expensive? Environmentally destructive? The term “irrigation” summons up images of massive capital intensive schemes, dams, flooded valleys, displaced communities.

But that’s NOT what I mean. There are much cheaper, environmentally protective, micro irrigation and water management technologies we can use. And they can be used in combination with the wonderful new seed and crop varieties that have been developed  - that need less water ,and with the new soil health solutions that are emerging which help with water retention and other things. These are the ‘more crop per drop’ irrigation solutions.

Like KickStart’s series of ‘MoneyMaker’ Pressure Hose Irrigation pumps. These are human powered, highly energy-efficient, lightweight, portable, simple to set up, easy to use, require no tools or special knowledge to maintain, last for years – and are cheap. To put one acre under irrigation using a MoneyMaker costs just $80. Mode of operation – one person pumping, another delivering water, either directly onto the root formation or as simulated rainfall - optimizes water use efficiency. This method uses no more water than drip irrigation, and is much cheaper.

KickStart has manufactured, distributed, marketed and sold  240,000 of these pumps to date- primarily in East and Southern Africa.

Here is what typically happens. A smallholder family uses the pump to grow more and better food more often- and reap the financial benefits, increasing the family’s farm income by a factor of 5 or more. They transform from subsistence survivalist farming to commercial agriculture. The farm becomes a family enterprise. Increased income means greater purchasing power, the power to convert basic needs into market demands -  they can pay for what they need and want. More and better food on the table, kids in school, health care, and -  once these are taken care of – further investments.

100 million smallholder families in Africa live in places where these micro irrigation solutions can work.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

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International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

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WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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