Irrigation changed my life in times of El Nino

By Sithembile Mwamakamba

20 June 2016

“The drought is there but we cannot complain and say we have been severely affected, infact we have been helping our neighbors by employing them as general hands in our farms”.  This was one general sentiment I heard when I visited farmers in Silalatshani in Filabusi, Insiza District less than a 100kms from Bulawayo in  south of Zimbabwe, a country that is suffering the worst  drought since 1992  and exacerbated by one of the most extreme El Niño impact in past 15 years.


According to the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCH), El Nino has left an estimated 31.6 million people across Southern Africa food and nutrition insecure. In Zimbabwe approximately 3 million rural Zimbabweans —almost a quarter of the country’s population—are in need of food aid as the drought has adversely affected crop supplies. In February this year, the Government of Zimbabwe declared a state of disaster and issued a 2016-2017 Drought Disaster Domestic and International Appeal for assistance.

It was then surprising to hear farmers from Silatshani, an area that is subject to seasonal droughts and severe dry spells even during the rainy season, say they have not been affected by the drought. So how have these farmers survived and even thrived to an extent of employing their neighbors?

Agnes Mkhatshwa has weathered the drought quite well she believes, and she attributes this to being a member of the Silalabuhwa Irrigation Scheme, which is arguably one of the largest irrigation schemes in the Matabeleland South province of Zimbabwe.

The scheme boasts of 442.8 hectares of arable land and a ready supply of water from the nearby Silalabuhwa Dam, which when it is full holds 23,454 million cubic metres of water. Crop and livestock production and off-farm employment are the main sources of livelihoods for farmers.

Agnes is one of 845 farmers who farm an average of 0.5 hectares of land through a flood-based system of irrigation. In 2014, Agnes was selected to be part of a group of 20 farmers participating in a project, funded by the Government of Australia’s Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and implemented by a consortium of partners who include the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), which is cushioning the effects of the drought. The project “Increasing irrigation water productivity in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through on-farm monitoring, adaptive management and Agricultural Innovation Platforms” aims to find means of meeting the African government’s plans for greater food security while using limited water resources more sustainably.

“I long stopped dryland farming because the crops dry up and I was always making a loss. I now do all my farming under irrigation because with irrigation there is no loss. This past year was declared a drought year, but as a farmer in the irrigation scheme, I was not terribly affected by the drought, like my neighbors who practice only dry land farming.” she said as she was cutting and sorting enormous sweet potatoes tubers preparing to take them to the market in Bulawayo.

“Of course we did experience some changes in terms of water distribution and quantities because our dam was not 100% full as with other years. However, the project we are on has helped us to monitor the water in our soils so we do not just water randomly. We use the Chameleon to see if there is enough water in the soil, if not then we water”; she further testified

The chameleon Agnes is referring to is the Chameleon Soil Water Sensor. The sensor measures tension and gives an output resembling a traffic light i.e. green (plenty of water) orange (transition) and red (running out of water) at three depths. The design of the traffic light sensor combines a deep understanding of science in soil water measurement techniques and the social process of adaptive learning, particularly amongst smallholder farmers.


Amidst the worst drought in recent years in Zimbabwe, the project seems to be recording some impressive successes. During the recent project mid-term evaluation, farmers shared how they have made significant increases in yield, they have cut down significantly on the amount and frequency of irrigation, which has resulted in them having more off farm time to focus on caring for school going children.

For Agnes, she has seen the benefits of being an irrigator as she shared that “Irrigation has really changed my life. I now produce high value crops such as garlic, butternut and sugar beans. With the money I get, I am sending my daughter to university, I have never once missed a payment of her school fees and even the boarding house where she stays, I pay the lodging fee on time, and I have never had any problems”.

The ACIAR funded project started in July 2013 and will end in June 2017. It intends to influence national and multi-lateral policies for water, agriculture and food security by providing evidence to enhance sustainability components concerning water and small holder-irrigation.  For Agnes and other farmers in Silalatshani, they hope that the project will be up scaled to include more farmers so that they too can say irrigation changed their lives!

Sithembile Mwamakamba is the Programme Manager for the Climate Smart Agriculture Cluster at the Food, Agriculture, Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN)


Climate Risk to Food Security Currently Underestimated in African Policy, Says New Report

During African Agricultural Science Week, the Montpellier Panel outlines how the African Union’s Malabo Declaration can be “climate-proofed”

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KIGALI, RWANDA (14th June 2016) – Agricultural growth and food security goals set out by the African Union’s Malabo Declaration have underestimated the risk that climate change will pose, according to a new briefing paper launched today by the Montpellier Panel of African and European experts in agriculture and development.


The paper, Set for Success: Climate-Proofing the Malabo Declaration says that the Declaration adopted in 2014 by African Union nations to double agricultural productivity and end hunger by 2025, has failed to recognise the importance of investing in Africa’s scientific capacity to combat climate threats, which will be essential to meeting these goals.,


Mean temperatures across Africa are expected to rise faster than the global average, and may reach as high as 3°C to 6°C greater than pre-industrial levels. The report argues that “climate-smart agriculture”, which serves the triple purpose of increasing production, adapting to climate change and reducing agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, needs to be integrated into countries’ National Agriculture Investment Plans and become a more explicit part of the implementation of the Malabo Declaration.


“Food security and agricultural development policies in Africa will fail if they are not climate-smart”, comments Professor Sir Gordon Conway, Director of Agriculture for Impact and Chair of the Montpellier Panel “Similarly, the new climate agreement will fail unless agriculture, particularly in Africa, is transformed.”


The report cites “building resilience” as the approach that will deliver the shared agenda set out by the Malabo Declaration and the Sustainable Development Goals. Adaptation and mitigation measures in agriculture have also formed a major part of the climate plans most African nations have submitted to the United Nations ahead of the Paris climate talks, signalling another major policy process this approach can contribute to. Tools that will achieve this include:


  • A “knowledge economy” that improves the scientific capacities of both individuals and institutions, supported by financial incentives and better infrastructure.
  • Technology and innovation such as crops biofortified with nutrients, drought tolerant seeds and weather data information systems.
  • Risk mitigation tools such as insurance policies that pay out to farmers following extreme climate events, and social safety net programmes that pay vulnerable households to contribute to public works can boost community resilience.
  • Sustainable intensification of agriculture production that will simultaneously improve food security and natural capital such as soil and water quality.
  • Effective climate-smart program design that will allow African nations to tap into resources from the Green Climate Fund.

The report identifies 15 successful examples of each of these interventions in action, which it argues must be scaled up rapidly if climate and development goals are to be met.


“lt will be impossible for African nations to sustain recent economic growth and continue to make progress against poverty and hunger without effectively addressing the threat of climate change” comments Ousmane Badiane, Africa Director for the International Food Policy Research Institute and Montpellier Panel member. “Without investments in resilience, costs of rebuilding after each climate shock will only continue to rise, diverting funds from other critical growth and social sectors. Climate-proofing the Malabo Declaration, for this reason, is doubly smart.”


Recommendations for donor and government action set out by the Montpellier Panel in this new report include:


  1. Building comprehensive information on climate-related stresses and shocks, both nationally and regionally, as well as their impacts on food and nutrition security.
  2. Mainstreaming climate-smart agriculture programmes into the next generation of National Agriculture Investment Plans to ensure a stronger focus on climate change and extreme weather events.
  3. Supporting African countries to develop country investment plans that reflect a stronger, collective voice for Africa in international climate policy processes.
  4. Facilitating African governments’ access to climate funds through the Green Climate Fund and other innovative finance mechanisms that will help countries implement climate-smart agriculture programmes.
  5. Improving Africa’s scientific capacity which will guide climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions in agriculture.
  6. Improving training for farmers on sustainable farming techniques, through improved extension services, farmer field schools and utilisation of digital technologies.


recommendations - NOT TO BE SHARED until 14th June

Approximately one person out of four in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be undernourished[i]. Agricultural yields vary greatly across the continent, but as a whole only averaged around 1.5 tons per hectare in 2007[ii]. The recent El Niño phenomenon has demonstrated the devastating impact that climate stress can have on production; in Malawi three million people are experiencing hunger due to the subsequent drought, and last year’s harvest was reduced by half in Madagascar and Malawi.


– ENDS –

[i] Regional Overview of Food Insecurity in Africa (FAO, 2015)

[ii] Raising Agricultural Productivity in Africa (Africa Progress Panel, 2010)


For all media requests, please contact:

Liz Sharma – – +44 (0) 7963 122988

About the Montpellier Panel:

The Montpellier Panel is a group of European and African experts from the fields of agriculture, trade ecology and global development. The panel is chaired by Professor Sir Gordon Conway, Director of Agriculture for Impact, an advocacy initiative which convenes the group. Since March 2010, the Panel has worked together to make recommendations to enable better European government support of national and regional agricultural development and food security priorities in sub-Saharan Africa.


About the Malabo Declaration

The Malabo Declaration on ‘Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods’, adopted in 2014, aims to improve nutrition and food security and increase agricultural productivity by 2025 while building resilience to the effects of climate change. Commitments include: ending hunger and halving poverty by 2025, a 10% public spending target for agriculture, doubling productivity, reducing post-harvest losses at least by half and sustain annual sector growth in agricultural GDP at least at 6%.

Read the Malabo Declaration here.