Book chapter in Improving Water Management in Agriculture

Advances in farmer-led irrigation development in Africa (Open Access)

Phil Woodhouse, published 2023


Evidence accumulating over the past two decades suggests that the poor performance of many official irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa has distracted attention from the widespread adoption of irrigation by small-scale farmers in the region. Farmer-led irrigation development is driven by growing local and regional food markets arising from urbanisation and rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Crop sales by households using irrigation developed by farmers’ initiatives appear to be five to ten-fold higher than crop sales by non-irrigating households and therefore offers major scope and opportunity to transform agricultural productivity and food supply.

Article in Journal of Agrarian Change

Formal and informal contract farming in Mozambique: Socially embedded relations of agricultural intensification (Open Access)

Gert Jan Veldwisch and Philip Woodhouse First published: 27 October 2021


This paper explores the role of contract farming arrangements in agricultural intensification in sub-Saharan Africa, combining secondary literature and original case material from Mozambique. The paper extends the scope of “contract farming” beyond the formal contracts between large companies and small-scale producers to include less formal credit agreements between farmers and traders. It argues that such informal contract arrangements are evidence of farmers’ agency in “real markets.” In the studied cases, farmers use contract farming opportunities to intensify agricultural production by investing in irrigation and inputs. While informal contracts typically concern locally consumed crops, thus with more possibilities for side selling than formal contracts for export crops with company-controlled markets, informal contract compliance reflects closely knit social ties between the contracting parties. In both formal and informal contracts, purchasers tend to seek out producers who are already irrigating, thus obtaining gains from farmers’ earlier investments. This also implies contract farming as a mechanism for accelerating social differentiation arising from unequal access to irrigation. The paper argues that the significance of informal contracts in the studied cases raises the possibility that informal contract farming by local traders plays a more important role in agrarian transformation in Africa than formal contract farming by large companies.


Article in Water Alternatives

Below the radar: Data, narratives and the politics of irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa (Open Access)

Jean-Philippe Venot, Samuel Bowers, Dan Brockington, Hans Komakech, Casey Ryan, Gert-Jan Veldwish and Philip Woodhouse


Emerging narratives call for recognising and engaging constructively with small-scale farmers who have a leading role in shaping the current irrigation dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. This paper explores whether new irrigation data can usefully inform these narratives. It argues that, for a variety of reasons, official irrigation data in sub-Saharan Africa fail to capture the full extent and diverse nature of irrigation and its rapid distributed growth over the last two decades. The paper investigates recent trends in the use of remote sensing methods to generate irrigation data; it examines the associated expectation that these techniques enable a better understanding of current irrigation developments and small-scale farmers’ roles. It reports on a pilot study that uses radar-based imagery and analysis to provide new insights into the extent of rice irrigated agriculture in three regions of Tanzania. We further stress that such mapping exercises remain grounded in a binary logic that separates ‘irrigation’ from other ‘non-irrigated’ landscape features. They can stem from, and reinforce, a conventional understanding of irrigation that is still influenced by colonial legacies of engineering design and agricultural modernisation. As farmers’ initiatives question this dominant view of irrigation, and in a policy context that is dominated by narratives of water scarcity, this means that new data may improve the visibility of water use by small-scale irrigators but may also leave them more exposed to restrictions favouring more powerful water users. The paper thus calls for moving away from a narrow debate on irrigation data and monitoring, and towards a holistic discussion of the nature of irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa. This discussion is necessary to support a constructive engagement with farmer-led irrigation development; it is also challenging in that it involves facing entrenched vested interests and requires changes in development practices.


Special Issue of Water Alternatives

“Farmer-led irrigation development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Investment, policy engagements and agrarian transformation.”
Guest Editors: Gert Jan Veldwisch, Jean-Philippe Venot and Hans Komakech. February 2019

The open-access papers may be read here


Policy Brief

“Farmer-led irrigation development and investment strategies for food security, growth and employment in Africa.” April 2018.


This Policy Brief examines the characteristics of farmer-led irrigation development in Africa, and focuses on the interventions that can be made by government and development agencies to support and expand, and / or regulate farmers’ irrigation initiatives.  The brief explores the benefits and risks of interventions, and concludes with a framing of policy responses.

Read the Policy Brief document

Download the pdf here

This Policy Brief is the output of a convening held by the SAFI Project team and partners at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in February 2018.


Article in The Journal of Peasant Studies

African farmer-led irrigation development: re-framing agricultural policy and investment?
Philip Woodhouse, Gert Jan Veldwisch, Jean-Philippe Venot, Dan Brockington, Hans Komakech & Ângela Manjichi. Published online: 09 Nov 2016.


The past decade has witnessed an intensifying focus on the development of irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa. It follows a 20-year hiatus in the wake of disappointing irrigation performance during the 1970s and 1980s. Persistent low productivity in African agriculture and vulnerability of African food supplies to increasing instability in international commodity markets are driving pan-African agricultural investment initiatives, such as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), that identify as a priority the improvement in reliability of water control for agriculture. The paper argues that, for such initiatives to be effective, there needs to be a re-appraisal of current dynamics of irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly with respect to the role of small-scale producers’ initiatives in expanding irrigation. The paper reviews the principal forms such initiatives take and argues that official narratives and statistics on African irrigation often underestimate the extent of such activities. The paper identifies five key characteristics which, it argues, contradict widely held assumptions that inform irrigation policy in Africa. The paper concludes by offering a definition of ‘farmer-led irrigation’ that embraces a range of interaction between producers and commercial, government and non-government agencies, and identifies priority areas for research on the growth potential and impact of such interactions and strategies for their future development.

Contact us

Please contact the team with enquiries, requests for further information, or to receive regular project updates.