In this fourth part of irrigation series, EPHRAIM NYONDO shares thoughts of various experts on what Malawi needs to develop irrigation in the country.
Irrigation is being touted as the alternative Malawi needs today to boost its falling rain-fed agriculture. Though irrigation is being practiced in Malawi, experts say its potential is yet to be fully exploited. But what more needs to be done?
Revisit land tenure
Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet) national coordinator Tamani Nkhono-Mvula says the issue of land tenure security for potential investor in irrigation is critical.
“Issues of land have been the one of the main contentious issues in the greenbelt initiative and much of the large scale irrigation projects taking place in the Lower Shire.
“I think public-private-community arrangements may help to resolve some of these challenges. On the other hand, government should declare some of the idle but potentially irrigable land as public land. I know that may cause a lot of challenges, but sometime such drastic measures need to be taken if we are to make progress.
“In my mind, I have the Mlukeni swamp which extends from Mpatsanjoka to Thavite in Salima. It is inhabited, no one cultivates there, yet chiefs are claiming large amounts of money for it,” he says.
Small scale or large scale?
Dr Hankie Uluko—senior lecturer of agricultural technology at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar)—says if ‘we are to produce for commercial purposes, then we should go the large scale commercial farming, however, in Malawi, almost 84 percent of the farmers are smallholder subsistence farmers’.
“This has got implications on the mode of intervention to improve the food and income levels. We have to give focus to the smallholders because they are the majority of the farmers. Technologies being introduced, therefore, ought to look at this set up as well including irrigation types.
“There has been a talk of drip irrigation as the next frontier to our irrigation. This suits smallholder farmers. However, we also have national agendas of being net exporter; therefore, there is need to focus on large scale farmers since economies of scale work out here as well as easy quality management and traceability of products,” he says.
Nkhono-Mvula says Malawi has had a lot of investments into irrigation development by the likes of World Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and the Africa Development Bank, but has little to show for it.
“One of the biggest challenges we have is how to sustain these investments further after the project life. In most cases these irrigation schemes are put under the care of the communities. Although this is done with good intentions, the management of these schemes by the communities has proved in most cases not to be a good way of managing them after the project life. Most of these communities that are entrusted with investments worth billions are just illiterate peasant farmers.
“Neglect in terms of management and maintenance has led to most of these schemes not to reach their potential. For instance, the Bwanje valley Irrigation Scheme and many other schemes that were under the IRALD project are on a downward spiral due to poor management by the communities. We would want to suggest that a public-private-community partnership framework has to be designed so that the private sectors take over the running to schemes in collaboration with the communities otherwise our return on investment in irrigation may never be realized,” he says.
Nkhono-Mvula argues that as one way of promoting irrigating development in Malawi, government must subsidise electricity tariffs’ for all irrigation schemes in Malawi especially those growing food crops.
“One of the challenges that have lead to the collapse of most irrigation schemes especially those being managed by the communities is the high cost of electricity. The subsidy program can be extended to the irrigation development in this way,” he says.
He notes that as a country we also need to start seriously thinking of investing in water harvesting technologies.
“The rainfall patterns have changed over the years with shrinkage of the rainfall season; however the amount of rain falling is mostly the same amount meaning that the rains that could have fallen for two months if falling in two week. What we need to do is to come up with water harvesting technologies so that we are able to conserve the water and use it for irrigation. We can invest in dams in all perennial rivers and use this water for irrigation farming,” he says.
Towards irrigation revolution
Dr Uluko argues that initial investment for irrigation is not cheap as it involves several stages such as setting out, land levelling in some instances and then purchase of pumps which are to be connected to a power source.
“Also, irrigation stands between water rights and land rights of the local people. Irrigation can therefore be complex requiring aptitude in many areas. In my view, we are lacking trained manpower to roll out a fully fledged irrigation revolution in Malawi. This is at both technician level as well as professional engineers’ level.
“The efforts by Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) to train irrigation experts are commendable but other institutions can also partner this initiative. The extension systems need capacity building in the area of irrigation water management so that we have efficient systems in irrigation schemes,” he says.