Tressica Tikita | Palladium - Aug 28 2019
Drip Irrigation Makes a Big Splash in Malawi

Gift displays the solar equipment for his drip irrigation kit. Credit: Theodora Kachingwe

Gift Lebiam and his wife Ethel are farmers from Mitundu, Lilongwe, where they are part of an out-grower scheme under Horizon Farming Limited. In addition to a one-acre plot that they use to farm maize during the rainy season, Gift and Ethel also maintain a small garden that they use to grow beans, groundnuts, and peas year-round.

To produce crops year-round, Gift and Ethel use traditional irrigation methods, collecting water from nearby wells, which they pour at the end of every ridge of the garden. This method of irrigation is time and labor intensive, and the time they spend watering the garden means they can't engage in other productive activities such as land preparation on their rainfed plot, selling farm produce, or attending farmer meetings and training sessions.

Things changed for Gift and Ethel in July 2018, when the Feed the Future Malawi Ag Diversification Activity (AgDiv), implemented by Palladium, installed drip irrigation equipment to cover their 20m x 25m garden. Gift was one of 12 farmers at Mitundu to receive a drip kit as part of AgDiv's effort to pilot farmer-managed drip irrigation and demonstrate the benefits of the technology to small-scale farmers.

The drip irrigation system pulls water out of a well through a solar pump and distributes it through a network of valves, pipes, tubing and emitters, allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants from above the soil surface. By placing water directly into the root zone, the system minimizes evaporation and reduces runoff and soil erosion, while using less water than traditional irrigation systems.

Increasing Productivity

Drip irrigation technology has had an immediate impact on the productivity of Gift's land and his household income as a result. Because it requires less labor and water than traditional methods, Gift can use more of his land for productive agriculture.

"With drip technology I don't have to always be in the farm," says Gift. "I can be home or elsewhere doing other important activities while my crop is being watered. All I do is set the pipes. Within a short time, a large piece of land gets watered, and that means it is now very easy for me to cultivate on a larger piece of land and produce more for my family and for selling."

Gift is also happy that the technology helps retain soil fertility by not interfering with soil structure and the plant nutrients. He explains: "The water slowly drips onto the required areas of the plant and all the important plant nutrients are preserved for healthier and stronger plants translating to higher yields. Previously, flooding the planted area used to disturb the soil structure and this would weaken the plants."

Because of the technology, Gift and Ethel are now able to produce more. In the past, the family earned about MWK 20,000 ($26) from the garden each year, but this year, even with pest infestations, yields were so much higher that they were able to earn MWK 70,000 ($91). With time saved from manually filling buckets at the end of every row, the couple now is now able to be more productive in other farming activities and around their home.

With the additional income from the garden and increased productivity in other activities, Gift and Ethel no longer lack basic home needs – things like salt, soap, and sugar. They are also investing in the family's future; with the additional income from the garden, they can buy school uniforms for their kids, nutritious food (like red meat) for the family and hire manual labor to increase production around the farm.

A Brightening Outlook

With everything he has learned from using the drip irrigation system this year, Gift expects that next year he will be able to turn a profit of MWK 300,000 ($389) from the garden. With the additional income, Gift and Ethel are hoping to become agri-entrepreneurs so that they can diversify their household income. Currently, they are making plans to buy an oxcart so that they can buy and aggregate vegetables for re-sale at a higher price to bigger markets. In three years, Gift calculates that they will have managed to save enough through these enterprises to be able to install drip irrigation on their one-acre plot.

As a result of the success of farmers like Gift, other small-scale farmers at Horizon Farm have begun to demand drip irrigation technology for their own land. As word spread about farmers being able to produce more, Gift began to receive visits from farmers hoping to learn how they could benefit from the technology. "Other farmers are very interested," says Gift. "They are always coming to my garden to learn and ask me plenty of questions including how they can access the equipment, so we refer them to Horizon officials." These days, 10 to 20 farmers visit Gift's garden every month.

AgDiv is creating access to drip irrigation for farmers under the Horizon Farming out-grower scheme through an innovative partnership that links farmers with financial institutions through a microfinance provider. In July, AgDiv is installing 40 additional drip kits for those farmers, each of which is being purchased on loan by the farmer through AgDiv's access to finance initiatives.

Palladium implements AgDiv for USAID.

This article originally appeared in Agrilinks and was republished with permission.