Where do we go from here?

September 24, 2017
Toward Global Scale

Strategies to scale micro-irrigation based on the lessons learned from the last decade.

By some estimates, there are nearly 600 million people in poverty who rely on their own agriculture for income. Charity can’t overcome this challenge due to the sheer numbers involved. Instead, sustainable implementations that can grow and scale are needed.

This was the challenge that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation decided to tackle when they partnered with iDE for the Scaling-Up Productive Water project. Based on Phase I, which established that micro-irrigation technology (MIT) had the potential for both income growth for the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) as well as addressing the increasing need for water efficiency, Phase II attempted to bring MIT to scale in a greater and more difficult variety of environments and market conditions. Unfortunately, immediate success was mixed (see discussion in Results).

What we learned

When implemented correctly, MIT works—it saves water, increases yields, and builds resilience. But successful implementation is not always simple or straightforward. From planning through installation and ongoing maintenance, MIT requires a set of knowledge and understanding that does not currently reside in the large majority of small-scale farmers. To overcome this limitation, MIT needs to be bundled with service delivery while keeping the investment cost low enough for it to still be affordable.

That service delivery can take many forms. SDC and iDE deliberately investigated two market delivery methods during Phase II, and while both can be successful, the method chosen self-selects a differing target audience. Future implementations need to consider this when determining what will have the most impact in a particular region. In fact, it may be better to scale drip technology in middle-income communities in less drought prone areas first to encourage investment and buy-in of market actors to help increase economies of scale and reduce product costs.

BoP farmers do not consider water savings to be of primary importance. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; when you are working to simply maintain your existence, worrying about next year’s crop or your neighbor’s ability to grow takes a distant second place to putting food on your own table right now. However, because of MIT’s ability to reduce labor and time spent moving water, farmers still have an additional incentive to implement the technology beyond its income generation potential.

The challenge of reaching global scale does not rest solely at the base of the pyramid. Before smallholder farmers can buy MIT, it has to be easily available and affordable to them. For that to happen, government policies need to ensure that MIT is free from protective tariffs and isn’t subject to onerous restrictions to import or manufacture locally. Private companies need to ensure that equipment is available in a range of sizes or—even more useful—constructed in a modular nature to accommodate plots ranging from half-hectare to hundreds of hectares.

The call to action

The key to successful agriculture remains what it has always been: water. And, because of this, enabling access to and smart use of water remains the best hope for reducing poverty among the rural poor who will continue to rely on farming for their livelihoods. Given what iDE has learned over the last three decades, and especially after the most recent Scaling-Up Productive Water project funded by SDC, there is no single solution—no “silver bullet”—that works in all places and for all people.

What does work, and what is needed, are:

  • Partnerships — The time has come to end unilateral programs that act like they are in a vacuum where no other current project or organization is engaged. Governments, NGOs, and other well-meaning agencies must consider each other’s actions and identify each other’s strengths, so each can leverage the actions of others for the most success.
  • Knowledge Sharing — Increasing people’s understanding of the issues around correct irrigation setup and maintenance helps reduce farmers’ risk. Similarly, sharing best practices for how to engage and encourage adoption of resource-smart technologies is key for governments, NGOs, and private sector to coordinate their market approaches.
  • Access to Finance — While farmers do not need charity, they do need access to the capital that can help them jumpstart their production. While iDE encourages manufacturers to continually drive down equipment costs, there will always be a lower limit due to sunk costs of materials, labor, and transportation. Providing loans for smallholder farmers enables them to invest in the items they need that can immediately start earning them additional income.
  • Investment — Capital is needed to provide loans, to engage in market research, to build market capacity, and to provide “gap” funding for social enterprises. Because of the challenges of these markets, private sector businesses tend to avoid them until there is enough evidence that profit can be made. In some cases, due to the expenses required to reach rural smallholders, the profit margin can be so minuscule that it will never be attractive to the private sector, thus needing a social enterprise that focuses on impact first and profit second.
  • Research and Development — Continuing efforts to research and develop new tools focused on meeting the needs of the rural farmer remains as well. New technologies may emerge, just as solar pumps have in the last decade, that have the potential to “leapfrog” a small farmer’s technical capability.
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