Innovation of the Week: Getting Water to Crops

Treadle pumps are foot-powered pumps that sit on top of a well and irrigate small plots of land. (Photo: IDE)

In 1999, when he purchased his first treadle pump, Robert Mwanza, a farmer in Lusaka, Zambia, was struggling to make ends meet and without reliable access to water. As his country dealt with drought and economic weakness, Robert lacked the necessary resources to irrigate his farm and “couldn’t grow enough to eat, let alone sell.” 

Access to water is a luxury that many rural households, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have. Farmers must often travel long distances to collect water from streams or public wells, making it impossible to irrigate crops or have enough water for cooking and bathing.

But affordable technologies such as the treadle pump (a foot-powered pump that sits on top of a well and irrigates small plots of land), the rope pump (a manually powered alternative to the treadle pump), and a variety of water storage systems (made of plastic and used as sources for sprinkler or drip irrigation systems) are changing all of that. The systems are developed and supported by International Development Enterprises (IDE), an organization working to improve the livelihoods of farmers in 13 countries in Asia and Africa through improved agriculture technology and market access. (See also: Harnessing Too Much of a Good Thing, Addressing Soil Erosion to Improve Production, Income, and Nutrition, and Persistently Innovative: One Farmer Teaches by Example.)

IDE is making irrigation more efficient by combining technology specially designed to address the needs of small-scale farmers with on-the-ground support staff to provide training and education. This allows farmers to expand their farms, feed their families, and earn a profit from selling surplus crops.

After just two years of improved irrigation provided by a treadle pump, Robert Mwanza grew more than enough vegetables to feed his wife and eight children. He also earned enough money to purchase an additional pump, doubling the amount of land he could irrigate. He recruited his brother, Andrew Mwanza, to work the additional pump, and in three years, with the help of IDE field staff, Robert began to sell his produce to Agriflora, a company that exports high-quality vegetables to Europe. Now the two brothers are growing enough vegetables to afford a motorized petrol pump for $750, further reducing the labor required to increase production.

To read more about the importance of getting water to crops, as well as other examples of innovations that help farmers do this, see: Innovation of the Week: Water Harvesting, Weathering the Famine, and Persistently Innovative: One Farmer Teaches by Example.

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