A Wakeup Call from the Drip Dream

Written by Margreet Zwarteveen & Ewoud Kok, on 19 August 2014

Drip irrigation is spreading among agro-entrepreneurs and smallholders in many countries, but it is not a miracle solution to water scarcity, food insecurity, and poverty. IHE Delft researchers have contributed to recent studies that aim to put a new perspective on efforts geared at promoting drip irrigation for smallholder farmers.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation entails applying water to individual plants in small, frequent quantities through a network of perforated plastic pipes and emitters. It is widely promoted for water saving, improved agricultural productivity, and poverty alleviation.

Technical innovation in drip irrigation arose in the 1960s in Europe, Israel, and the United States in response to a demand for intensification of agriculture. Since then, most research and development efforts have focused on engineering ever more efficient drip systems.

Initially, high investment costs and management requirements confined drip irrigation use mostly to large-scale farms in developed economies, for producing high-value crops. Over the last two decades, smallholder farmers in developing and transition economies have also begun using  drip irrigation, often adapting and changing them to better suit their conditions and needs.

To also make the benefits of the technology available to poorer farmers, social entrepreneurs (such as International Development Enterprise) and industrial drip manufacturers (Jain and Netafim) have begun developing small drip kits.

'A drip dream'

Drip irrigation is widely seen and promoted as intrinsically beneficial, allowing to increase productivities while saving water and labor. The introduction of drip irrigation is associated with development, modernity and progress, and its use is widely perceived as helping solve problems of water scarcity.

The general positive image of drip is actively maintained and reproduced by a wide coalition of policy makers, irrigation engineers and researchers in universities, and drip irrigation manufacturers. More recently development funders and NGOs joined this coalition by promoting low-cost drip kits also as a successful poverty alleviation device. 

NGOs and poor farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa

From the early 2000s onwards, based on experiences acquired in South Asia, NGOs started to promote drip irrigation kits in Sub-Saharan Africa. Drip kits have been designed for ease of use and low management and investment costs and are specifically targeting poor smallholders, who can use them to irrigate small plots ranging from 20 m2 to 500 m2.

These initiatives -mostly funded by bilateral and international development agencies and private foundations-receive a lot of positive attention. This is partly because they neatly fit the current development paradigm, which stresses the importance of the market and emphasizes the importance of ecological sustainability. In contrast to earlier surface irrigation systems which required large public investments in construction and operation, drip kits can be individually owned and managed. Drip thus feeds dreams of farmer-initiated agricultural development, with the technology allowing poor subsistence farmers to evolve into profit-making entrepreneurs.

To date, such dreams have rarely become true however, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. By themselves farmers rarely, if ever, seek drip irrigation kits and show little interest in using them. When they do so, it is often because the kits are seen, or act, as a gateway to receiving other development benefits such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, pumps and loans.

The main buyers of drip irrigation kits appear to be development NGO's rather than the farmers themselves. Drip irrigation allows them to uphold their reputation as credible development organizations and raise the funding they need to remain in business. These NGOs are embedded in a broader political economy of development aid and, in many cases, their existence hinges on their ability to partner with government and aid agencies. This means they often act as suppliers of drip irrigation kits without giving much critical attention to whether and how such kits are used by farmers.

Jonas Wanvoeke, PhD Fellow at Wageningen University and IHE Delft, spent two years in Burkina Faso to study the dissemination and use of drip-kits. He noticed that during the pilot phase of a typical drip-kit project, farmers use it because there is guidance from professionals. Once the project has ended, motivation to continue with drip irrigation is lacking.

Jonas Wanvoeke: "For example, many of the farmers are women. They used to irrigate with watering cans, which require them to go to the fields once a day. However, when they use a drip-kit, they have to attend to the crops three times a day. They don't have the time for that, and as a result, abandon drip irrigation."

Most farmers also find that working with the drip kits is too cumbersome; especially the maintenance of the emitters and filters requires much effort. In addition, the fact that the kits can only irrigate very small plots makes it less attractive for Burkina Faso farmers. And, although the drip kits are promoted as allowing cultivation in the dry season, in most places there is too little water available to do this.

Charlotte de Fraiture, Professor of Hydraulic Engineering for Land and Water Development at IHE Delft:

"The drip kits are designed as affordable solution for smallholder farmers, but minimizing the cost of the technology means that only very small surfaces can be covered. This makes it a less appealing option for the target group, such as small entrepreneurial farmers, and calls into question the viability. The advantages of the drip kits are too small to justify changing from the traditional way of watering by hand." 

A wake up call

A coalition of actors has formed around the idea that low-cost drip irrigation has the potential to contribute to poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa. What is remarkable is that this coalition sustains itself in the near absence of farmers who, in their large majority, quickly abandon the kits after gaining access to them.

Jonas Wanvoeke: "The distribution of drip-kits is considered as a measurement for success. However, this is not a good measurement. A good measurement is the actual use by farmers on a long term basis as well as a proven direct link with poverty alleviation for the people."

Actual drip irrigation by smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa remains marginal. A few individuals held up as successful examples of modern and innovative farmers are enough to entertain positive drip imagery and justify widespread support and enthusiasm from governments, development agencies, NGOs and social enterprises.

Margreet Zwarteveen, Professor of Water Governance at IHE Delft and involved in the research, reckons that a wakeup call is needed when discussing the success of low-cost drip kits:

"In Sub-Sahara Africa, enthusiasm for drip kits mainly comes from manufacturers, funders and development organizations. Apparently, kits feed into a wide-spread desire in the development aid community for believing in the existence of neat and small-scale technical solutions to structural problems of poverty and resource depletion. The idea that a simple and cheap technical device can help Africa's farmers become profit-making entrepreneurs is indeed appealing and therefore effective for fund-raising purposes. Yet, unless farmers themselves actively engage with new technological solutions there is little hope that these will have a longer-lasting impact."

World Water Week Session

A session at the World Water Week in Stockholm will be dedicated to this topic. The session will be held on Thursday 4 September 2014, 14:00-17:30, Room T5.

Read more: Putting Drip Irrigation in Perspective: Reality Check on the Promises of a Technology

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This story is largely based on:

Venot, J.P.; Zwarteveen, M.; Kuper, M.; Boesveld, H.; Bossenbroek, L.; van der Kooij, S.; Wanvoeke, J.; Benouniche, M.; Errahj, M.; de Fraiture, C.; Verma. S. (2014). Beyond the promises of technology: A review of the discourses and actors who make drip irrigation. Irrigation and Drainage. 63(2): 186-194.  Article first published online: 14 MAR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/ird.1839and:

Wanvoeke, J.; Venot, J.P.; Zwarteveen, M. and de Fraiture, C. (2015). Performing success: the case of smallholder drip irrigation in Burkina Faso. (Submitted to Water International).