Growing rice needs more than soil and water

Research in West Africa finds that smallholder farmers are not benefiting enough from investments in irrigation because they are not getting access to the agriculture services they need.

A new report urges governments and development agencies to develop context-specific strategies and support systems for agricultural advisory services that meet the needs of local farmers (Photo: IIED)

Growing rice in the Sahel is not easy – but rice is what more and more people in West Africa want to eat. This is why governments and donors have invested in large irrigation schemes, hoping to reduce dependency on rice imports and boost the local economy.

But growing rice needs more than just "hardware" such as water, land, seed and fertiliser.

Knowledge (about technologies and markets) and relationships (with suppliers and buyers) are just as important. Farmers need help in developing both, and agricultural advisory services (AAS) are meant to provide that help. But is it working?

A new report by the Global Water Initiative (GWI) explores the role of AAS in ensuring that investments in irrigation infrastructure pay off – for local smallholder farmers and for governments. The report is being launched on 30 September 2016 in Limbé, Cameroon, at the annual conference of RESCAR-AOC, the West and Central African AAS network.

Farmers need advice

The interest in agricultural advisory services (or "agricultural extension" as it used to be called) is not new. No serious professional disagrees with the need to accompany investments in agricultural infrastructure with investments in institutions to ensure farmers have the knowledge, incentives and resources to produce more and to produce it better.

But AAS have long been the neglected sibling of agricultural research, with investments pouring primarily into the development of new technologies and not their promotion. This has led to improved varieties of rice and other staple crops that have contributed to increasing productivity and food security in many parts of the world, in particular under irrigation.

However, to ensure farmers have access to technologies, can themselves innovate, can share learning with each other and make an informed choice about the production methods that work best for them, they need more than infrastructure and technologies.

Agricultural advisory services are meant to support farmers in getting organised in cooperatives, in accessing inputs and markets, and to provide technical and business advice along the value chain.

Are smallholders benefiting?

But do Agricultural Advisory Services work for smallholder farmers in West Africa's large irrigation schemes? Not really, according to GWI's action research.

Farmer organisations and agricultural service providers (irrigation scheme managers, agricultural researchers and input suppliers) in three schemes in Mali (Sélingué), Burkina Faso (Bagré) and Senegal (Anambé) have identified a range of challenges both from the 'demand' and the 'supply' sides. 

The project found that farmers often struggle to prioritise and articulate what services they require, and are not sufficiently well organised to hold service providers to account – be they from the private sector or the government.

And many farmer organisations have weak governance systems, low levels of transparency and legitimacy, and low financial and organisational capacity, so are not in a good position to meet or advocate for the needs of their members. 

On the 'supply' side, the situation is often no better, with poor coordination between AAS  providers, low technical and organisational capacity, and poor motivation and leadership.

Where advice is available, it is often not targeted at the needs of different types of farmers. Investing in expensive infrastructure rehabilitation for existing irrigation schemes, or building new ones, without addressing these institutional challenges does not seem like a good idea.

Increasingly investors such as governments and development banks are recognising that this kind of support for farmers' institutions matters – so 'hard' investments in infrastructure are now routinely accompanied by investments in capacity development and value chains, both for farmers and service providers.

For example, a recent AFD (Agence Française pour le Développement) project in the Anambé Basin in Senegal allocated a proportion of its budget to develop farmer organisations to ensure that the rehabilitated irrigation infrastructure would be maintained and used effectively and efficiently.

Although well intended, such initiatives are generally designed by consultants with limited knowledge of the specific needs of different types of farmers and with limited appreciation of the local social and power relations. Such projects also tend to have a limited lifespan, whereas irrigation schemes need support, organisational systems and governance institutions that work for generations of farmers to come. 

Developing action plans

In response to demands from local stakeholders, GWI piloted a participatory process for irrigation scheme managers, farmers and other stakeholders to jointly analyse the challenges and opportunities and develop action plans. These plans (for Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso) are now used to inform interventions by local and external development actors in each of the three schemes.

The report analyses AAS from a demand and supply perspective and advocates for investments in both organisational capacity and appropriate institutions to coordinate, communicate and manage AAS along the value chain. 

It argues that large irrigation schemes require functioning AAS even more than extensive dryland farming systems to ensure returns to investment, but more importantly to assure that smallholder farmers can make a living from irrigated rice farming. 

It urges governments and development agencies to develop context-specific AAS strategies and support systems that meet the needs of local people – because without them, West Africa will continue to rely on imported rice, with all the risks associated with this. 

Barbara Adolph (barbara.adolph@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group