Drip Irrigation in Smallholder Markets: A Cross-Partnership Study

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Unpredictable access to water is one of the most significant impediments to optimizing productivity for the majority of the 500 million smallholders across the world. Rain-fed production systems are more likely to suffer crop failure, and struggle to maximize returns from transformational inputs such as hybrid seeds and fertilizers. Traditional irrigation practices such as surface flooding inefficiently deliver scarce water to the soil around crops rather than directly to the root system, resulting in poor uniformity of growth and negative agro-ecological impacts such as raised groundwater tables and soil salinization.

Drip irrigation technology offers the potential to address these dilemmas, as it delivers localized application of water to the crop when and where it is needed, leaving non-productive spots dry, providing weed control, reducing risks of fungal diseases, and increasing crop yields per volume of water applied. Drip lines can also deliver water soluble nutrients directly to the root system of crops, through a process known as fertigation, avoiding over-application of chemical fertilizers.

The potential productivity and income benefits that accrue to smallholder farmers from employing drip irrigation are unmistakable. Drip irrigation has been found to increase farmer yields compared to non-irrigated traditional production practices, save 30-40 percent on water usage, and reduce the cost of labor. This typically means that smallholder farmers can more than double their net income within a year.

Despite the clear benefits of using drip irrigation, uptake in smallholder production systems has remained limited. In India, for example, less than 2 percent of farmers have drip irrigation systems in place. Similarly, in Africa, use of drip irrigation is limited almost exclusively to large-scale commercial farms. As such, there is significant untapped opportunity to expand the use of drip irrigation technologies to smallholder farmers, but several challenges have historically presented themselves across developing countries.

First, the design of systems is often not appropriately scaled-down and targeted towards the commercially viable smallholder producers, leading to retail price points that are out of reach for the majority of the market segment. Second, distribution of drip equipment to smallholder production areas (“the last mile”) is expensive, driving up costs and limiting rural availability to farmers. Third, farmers need improved technical capacity to manage drip systems, and to implement good agricultural practices that provide the foundation for drip to deliver on its full potential. Lastly, the financial sector rarely provides credit products with appropriate lending terms for a fixed asset with high upfront costs and prompt break-even but rapid depreciation. The Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation program has supported several commercial partnerships that attempt to address each of these issues and increase smallholder uptake of the technology.

Since 2013, Partnering for Innovation has partnered with three key global drip irrigation system manufacturers to address those key binding constraints identified in each country of operation, such as product design, access to finance, access to extension, and rural distribution. Partnering for Innovation has invested nearly $1.8 million in seed capital with over $1.3 million pledged by partners. This study discusses lessons learned from these partnerships and presents case studies for each partnership as well as for the USAID-funded Tanzania Agricultural Productivity Program, which worked with commercial drip irrigation companies to expand drip irrigation in Tanzania.

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