Growing Smallholder Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: Just Add Water?

3 April 2019 Gerald Tnay, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


On 19 March 2019, the United Nations launched the 2019 edition of the World Water Development Report, titled Leaving No One Behind. The report serves to reinforce the commitments made by UN member states in adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It highlights many key issues that need to be fixed, mainly the inequality of water access. It notes that people who are poor or marginalised are most likely to have limited access to water and sanitation. A lack of access to water is particularly apparent in sub-Saharan Africa, where water insecurity continues to have negative consequences on the region’s gross domestic product (GDP), health and food security.


The report states that agriculture is the largest consumer of water globally, with the sector accounting for 69 per cent of annual water withdrawals. It also notes that jobs in the agricultural sector are highly water-dependant. Having access to water for irrigation is a major determinant of land productivity, as irrigated land produces twice as much grain as rain-fed land. With a growing global population, the demand for food and water is likely to increase. If current water access trends continue, it is likely that, by 2050, 45 percent of global gross domestic product and 40 percent of global grain production will be threatened by a lack of water resources. With access to water being a crucial component for agricultural production, the need for water security in sub-Saharan Africa is dire.

The region garners 15 per cent of its GDP from agriculture, making it heavily reliant on access to a stable and continuous source of water. Yet, largely due to water insecurity and poverty, hunger and malnutrition persist across the region. There are 175 million people employed as smallholder famers in sub-Saharan Africa, making them the largest agricultural producers in the region. Of those 175 million people, 43 per cent are women. Smallholders are small-scale farmers, who manage areas varying from less than one hectare to ten hectares. Female smallholders, however, suffer further constraints, such as low access to water, land and capital, compared to their male counterparts. Statistics from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) show that, if female farmers had access to the same resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30 per cent, enough to lift 150 million people out of hunger.

Smallholder farmers, however, make up three-quarters of the hungry in the region. As they rely directly on agriculture for their livelihoods, any reduction in agricultural productivity has a significant effect on their food security and income. Another factor that contributes to their difficulties is climate change. Climate change, as set out in the UN water report, is expected to increase the frequency of variable rains, leading to more droughts and floods that could damage crops. Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is mainly rain-fed and, although there is an ample supply of water in the region, it is not evenly distributed, making certain agricultural regions more vulnerable to climate change. Millions of smallholder famers already face unpredictable rainfall levels, resulting in failed harvests. If smallholder famers could gain access to sustainable and reliable water sources, hunger and poverty in the region would decline. To help create more sustainable farms, members of the international community are trying to provide solutions.

Among farmers and international agencies, the case for irrigation is a popular solution for procuring an efficient and stable water source for agricultural production. The benefits that irrigation brings to agriculture include: increases in agricultural productivity and crop diversity; the creation of employment opportunities; stronger climate and water resilience; and increased regional economic growth.

For sub-Saharan Africa, irrigation reduces the dependency of rain-fed agriculture on regular rainfall, by introducing effective water control. Irrigation could also generate net revenues of up to US$22 billion ($31 billion) per year in the region. While irrigation is an excellent solution to solve some of the challenges that these smallholder farmers face, many of them do not have sufficient capital, nor access to irrigation technology. In 2006, 225 million hectares of land was cultivated, but only 3.2% of that land was equipped for irrigation. Furthermore, female farmers are often excluded from access to information and training on irrigation processes and this hampers their ability, and reduces their incentives, to invest in irrigation technologies.

Without the aid of national governments and private-sector investors, water insecurity in the sub-Saharan region will continue to be a problem for the livelihood and food security of smallholder farmers, as well as for the regional economy.

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