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Irrigation project brings water to Malawi

Water is of great concern in Malawi, particularly for agriculture; most farmers have to rely on weather conditions and unpredictable rainfall for their crops

Water is of great concern in Malawi, particularly for agriculture; most farmers have to rely on weather conditions and unpredictable rainfall for their crops


Irrigation is scarcely developed and the few large-scale government irrigation schemes have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. As a result, agricultural productivity is low and production erratic.

The Government of Malawi has set irrigation as one of its top priorities, and an irrigation programme, jointly supported by IFAD and the World Bank, was launched in 2006 to tackle the issue.

The objective of the Irrigation, Rural Livelihoods and Development Project (IRLADP) is to raise agricultural productivity and net incomes of poor rural households by providing an integrated package of support covering irrigation, agricultural/irrigation advisory services, marketing and post-harvest assets and services. It is implemented in 11 districts of Malawi in the northern, central and southern regions. Like many other IFAD projects, it is demand-driven and based on the full participation of the communities involved.

Transferring ownership provides incentive

Part of the project is to rehabilitate four disused government schemes to irrigate a total of 1,800 hectares of fields. However, the project will also transfer ownership of the schemes to the farming communities that will benefit from them, and in this way it is innovative. The communities are fully participating in the construction work and are being trained to manage the forthcoming schemes through a water users’ association (WUA). Many of the project’s resources are currently dedicated to building the farmers’ capacity to manage their WUA.

“We are very happy to become owners of the scheme. We are being trained to run and manage it through our WUA. We’re getting leadership training, conflict management training, as well as technical training,” explained Rose Timbo, Vice-Chairperson of the Likangala Water Users’ Association. Likangala is one of the large-scale government schemes in the District of Zomba. The region produces mainly rice and maize. Currently, the canals are under construction and part of the scheme should become operational in 2011.

IRLADP also supports the development of mini-scale schemes of less than 10 hectares each for a total of 300 hectares and new small-scale gravity schemes, from 10 to 50 hectares each for a total of around 500 hectares, which will also be owned by the local communities. Gravity schemes use the natural inclination of the hills to allow the water to run, which means that no mechanical pump is required.

Responding to demand for irrigation schemes

IRLADP also provides farmers with agricultural services, such as technology, inputs and marketing advice, under a Farmer Services and Livelihoods Fund representing an investment of $25mn. However, since the project was launched, many farming communities surprisingly requested support to build irrigation schemes under the Fund. In response to this demand, more than 200 mini-irrigation schemes were developed in addition to the schemes originally planned. In total, the project established mini-irrigation schemes on 1,496 hectares, which are now benefiting more than 20,000 farm households.

The Kaimbi Irrigation Club in Lilongwe District is one of the clubs formed under the Fund. The club started irrigation farming in 2008, after it received support to develop a scheme. The system used is very simple: canals are hand-dug and the water is diverted manually from canal to canal using sand bags. “We had 50 men and 60 women when we started. A year later the membership rose to 135,” said Johane Tsoka, secretary of the club. “Each member has a plot size of about 0.4 hectares on average and is responsible for irrigating his or her own crop.”

The club’s members were trained in irrigation techniques, crop production and improvement, group management and accounting. They also received inputs such as enhanced hybrid seeds and fertilizer, and were trained to improve planting techniques and use manure. “We got one bag of fertilizer and one bag of urea each, as well as 10 kg of hybrid seeds,” said Johane. Farmers received the inputs the first year and will have to buy them in future years. “If we compare with previous years, we’re harvesting more and have enough food to take us through the year,” said Loveness Daniel, a 25-year-old mother of four. “We eat meat, especially chicken.”

Increasing income

The club has a marketing committee that finds commercial outlets, sells the produce and redistributes the proceeds according to each farmer’s individual production. While maize is the main crop, the group has developed a surplus of vegetables which members are able to sell. “We got MK 270,000 [$1,800] from cabbage and MK 93,000 [$620] from tomatoes,” said Loyness William, secretary of the marketing committee. The club’s farmers are planning to diversify into Irish potatoes and other vegetables.

With the extra income, farmers have been able to buy items of first necessity: bicycles, cell phones, corrugated iron sheets for the roofs of their houses and livestock. “We can also pay for the school fees now,” added Loveness, who has been able to buy iron roofs for her house and her mother’s house.

The challenge now will be to ensure that the irrigation schemes are sustainable, and that farmers receive sufficient technical and management training to maintain them and to develop crops.

Source: IFAD