Irrigation is one of the world’s oldest agricultural technologies – and it’s still one of the most powerful, with the potential to drive key national priorities including the empowerment of women and youth.

So, when a group including the ministers with responsibility for agriculture in more than one country convene to discuss irrigation issues, you just know it will touch on important matters.

The Honourable Fulgence Nsengiyumva, Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Republic of Rwanda, was the first to speak at the session on farmer-led irrigation development. She explained the country’s small-scale irrigation technology programme that allows farmers to continue producing during times of drought.

As a key element of the programme, the Government of Rwanda provides farmers with a 50 percent subsidy on the cost of pumps and other accessories. With an eye to sustainability, a shift away from diesel to solar-powered pumping is under consideration.

In a discussion group led by Zambia’s Minister of Agriculture, the Honourable Michael Katambo, the Rwandan approach was received with great approval by Dr Simeon Ehui, Director, World Bank Agriculture Global Practice. He called the country’s approach the epitome “of what Africa can do”, emphasising that “crops do not need rain – they need water”. And he stressed the fact that without sufficient water, there is nothing that can happen to improve food production in Africa.

Mr Katambo described how the Zambian Government is creating market links for farmers and providing 100,000 hectares in each province to enable greater investment in agriculture.

According to Steven Muchiri, CEO of the Eastern Africa Farmers Association, this is a fundamental requirement for irrigation as improving access to water depends to a great extent on strength of domestic markets. As he said, “Without a market, there is no incentive for the farmer to invest in production.”

The overriding importance of farmer-led investment (FLI) was emphasised by Dr Tushaar Shah, Senior Fellow of the International Water Management Institute. In a session called ‘Lessons from Asia’, he described how investment by farmers themselves has provided some 30 million irrigation pumps in India over the last half century – a highly effective investment, providing on-demand irrigation all year round, that costs a fraction of Government investments in dams or canals.

According to the World Bank’s Senior Water Resources Economist Dr Regassa Namara, another key advantage of FLI lies in how it addresses the prospects of women and young people. As she highlighted, they are facing a significant opportunity to use it as a strategy both to benefit themselves and reduce poverty overall.

Richard Colback, Senior Operations Officer at IFC, called on governments to accelerate progress by improving access to capital and finance as well as disruptive new technologies. He went on to emphasise the importance of sharing knowledge and experience, not just across Africa but also across Asia, Europe and the Americas. A practical example of such knowledge-sharing was then presented by Emmanuel Ndayizeye, Managing Director of the Horticulture in Reality Cooperative, who described how 500 agronomists received training in Israel on irrigation, agribusiness and mechanisation.