Improving Irrigation Efficiency during a Pandemic: the Tuli Karoo Experience

Improving food security and farm-based livelihoods is among the central challenges of our time and key to fostering progress toward a set of Sustainable Development Goals such as reducing hunger and poverty. The primary pathway for enhancing food security and farming livelihoods – boosting agricultural production – is nonetheless constrained by limited and erratic water resources availability. In the shared Tuli Karoo System (Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe), irrigation from both ground and surface water is key to the production of cereals, legumes, and vegetables as well as high-value crops and livestock, yet, in most years, water shortage results in farmers not fully cultivating all irrigable hectares in their schemes. A key thrust of a USAID-funded project in the Tuli Karoo is improving irrigation efficiency and adaptive learning in smallholder farming so that the benefits of existing water resources can be stretched farther to achieve greater and more effective agricultural production.

Map showing location of selected pilot sites

Four sites were selected for rolling-out (see image) of ag-water technologies to assist in crop management decision-making, which began in early 2020. Two sites are in Botswana and two in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, a pandemic eliminated the option of field visits from March 2020 and so support had to be provided remotely. Telephone and WhatsApp were used to encourage continued farmer monitoring and learning under difficulties of lockdown imposed due to pandemic. Persistence was ultimately required to secure data from the two Zimbabwean sites, and data from the Botswana sites is still to come. While, farmer and extension services learning experience on sites was not impacted, the monitoring and evaluation of the project was a challenge. This may suggest, even in a 21st century world of virtual engagements and technology advancements, there may still be a place for some face-to-face engagement, though less frequently. Lesson learned on operating in crisis and risk context, is to increase the number of people trained to use the technologies on each site to ensure that if one person is sick or not available, more than three people are capable of taking readings from the instruments.

The farmers successfully learned to adjust their management practices from the technologies resulting in improved irrigated water productivity and grain yield. There is substantial promise for use of such low-tech tools in rural areas of Africa, but care needs to be taken to ensure modalities of roll-out, tools field support, and investment costs, market value chains, and farmers’ agency for change can withstand unexpected shocks like travel limitations.

Contributed by Manuel Magombeyi and Jonathan Lautze

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