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Building Capacity for Community-Driven Irrigation Tech

Published: Friday, 03 Mar 2017
Author: Lizzy LaFave
Department: Global Center for Food Systems Innovation

Irrigation is a high-priority issue in the largely rain-fed agricultural communities of Uganda. Without it, farmers struggle to adapt to tough growing conditions, from severe drought to disastrous flooding. However necessary, upfront system costs and top-down approaches have left many valuable crop plots at the whim of the weather.

Researchers Kate Scow and Abraham Salomon, both of the University of California-Davis, work in eastern Uganda, collaborating with local farmers, social advocates, and engineers on irrigation interventions that are flexible and community-managed. "Currently, a lot of vegetables are grown in other regions, often considerable distances away, and brought in even though the potential is there locally," said Scow. By installing and maintaining an adaptable irrigation system that allows tomatoes, cabbage, beans and other vegetables to thrive in the dry seasons and the unpredictable rainy seasons, communities gain food security.

Funded by a grant from the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, Scow and her team took a decidedly participatory and adaptive research approach to design irrigation systems that suit local conditions and farmers' needs, and that are adaptable to unforeseen challenges.

Researchers work at six sites meeting regularly with groups of farmers, who formed farmer committees tasked with developing plans for an irrigation system for the local farmers.

Near the town of Jinja, said Scow, "The farmers and engineers agreed that the best plan was to install a centralized irrigation system that brought water to a large plot of land. Then, a large land owner would rent out small plots of the irrigated land to farmers."

Everything was installed successfully, but the farmers were not leasing the plots.
Discussion with farmers revealed that many of them, especially women, were uneasy about relying on land owned by just one landlord. "They were afraid if they invested in it, they wouldn't have big enough plots to be able to actually make an income. Also, they were worried the rent would fluctuate with the water supply and access to the equipment."

The local committee went back to the drawing board and designed a very different, decentralized system, where water was delivered to multiple small plots distributed throughout the landscape. Now the water would be controlled by the actual users themselves. "Though it required pulling out the original system, the second time we all tried to really listen to one another and pay better attention to the needs of everyone."

Scow said that the Jinja site showed the importance of developing an irrigation system that is flexible and can be adapted to changing needs and the dynamics of human relationships. While irrigation is a high-priority issue in Uganda, she said it is pointless to develop a system that is not flexible to the social dimensions and tensions of the farming community.

"Flexibility is required in dealing with the social norms and constraints that must also be considered in setting up the shared infrastructure often typical of irrigation projects. Some of the social aspects are more complicated than the technologies themselves, and they can make or break implementations of a good irrigation system," said Scow.

"The ultimate goal of the participatory research is an empowering process for farmers to handle challenges and influence the direction of their own lives. We thought we would be focusing on irrigation technology intervention, but often finding ways to deal with the challenges of complex social interactions is the type of innovation most needed."

Going forward, researchers will continue to receive feedback from stakeholders at the six sites. Their on-the-ground experience serves to more fully identify emerging issues that lead to greater, or lesser, empowerment over the farmers' use of irrigation.

"All of these activities are feeding into our final goal of co-creating a framework and planning tool for organizations to consider the real needs of African smallholders, especially women, when developing irrigation programs," said Scow.

Launched in 2012, the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation at Michigan State University is one of eight development labs established through the Higher Education Solutions Network of the United States Agency for International Development.