Water-saving technologies strengthen farmers’ resilience in Mozambique
Food production in Mozambique is largely (more than 90 percent) dominated by smallholder farmers under rain-fed conditions. However, reliance on rains alone is associated with a high risk of crop failure.
To improve agricultural productivity, as well as food security and climate resilience, the Government of Mozambique, along with development partners, has invested significantly in revitalizing and expanding government-led irrigation schemes. In addition, farmer-led irrigation is estimated to cover at least twice the area of government-funded initiatives. Yet the performance of both systems is constrained by inefficiencies, underutilization and rapid degradation of irrigation infrastructure.
Launched in 2019, the Farmer-led smallholder irrigation in Mozambique (FASIMO) research project aimed to identify how Mozambique’s irrigation systems can become more productive, profitable and sustainable. A key element of the research involved testing various innovative soil water and nutrient management tools to improve crop-water productivity. Data was also gathered to contribute to evidence-based irrigation policy development. The research is supported by Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund – a partnership program of IDRC and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. The research’s findings provide recommendations to government and other irrigation stakeholders about how to improve Mozambique’s irrigation sector.
- Water-monitoring tools have cut irrigation events by half.
- Irrigation costs have dropped by 40 percent.
- Crop yields in irrigated fields have increased by 10 percent.
Producing more with less
FASIMO trained more than 400 smallholder farmers and 137 extension officers on improved crop management practices, including land preparation, optimum crop density, pest control and adoption of water-efficient innovations. Benefiting at least 40 percent women-owned and managed farms, a key innovation was the hand-held Chameleon soil water sensor, which displays a colour code to show the level of moisture in the soil. The inclusive sensors are easily interpreted, including by those who cannot read.
“If the light is blue, the soil is wet. If it is green, there is enough moisture in the soil, and, if it is red, it means the soil is dry and it is time to irrigate,” said Berta Inácio Ngove, a maize and bean farmer of the Makateco irrigation scheme.
Wetting front detectors (WFDs) were introduced to help farmers measure how much water has percolated into the soil after irrigating. They can also be used by farmers to collect samples for nutrient and salinity tests. The Chameleon and WFDs are used in conjunction with drip irrigation systems, also provided by the project. The drip irrigation systems consist of long plastic tubing with small holes called emitters, which slowly drip water to the roots of plants at regulated times, removing the need to water entire fields.
Since adopting the water-monitoring tools, farmers have cut irrigation events by 50 percent, reduced irrigation costs by 40 percent and doubled water productivity, while increasing crop yields by 10 percent in two consecutive seasons (2020 and 2021). According to Emilio Magaia, FASIMO’s principal investigator and a lecturer at Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University, the trained smallholder farmers are leading the charge in boosting food security. “Over time, more farmers have engaged in irrigation, which the government has prioritized as a way to ensure food security,” he said. “The impact of climate change has reduced water flow into irrigated areas, making it imperative to embrace water-efficient technologies to help farmers produce more with less.”
Esmeraldo Julio Ngovene, head of production at the Makateco Irrigation Scheme, says that before being introduced to the water-saving technologies, the farmers irrigated on a hunch. Previously, over a three-month cropping season, farmers used 90 litres of diesel to pump water to grow beans on 2 ha of land. Since adopting the devices, Ngovene said they pump water based on the water-monitoring tool readings, and now use only 50 litres of fuel on the same area. This has cut irrigation costs by half – from MZN9,470 (CAD198) to MZN4,835 (CAD101) for the entire crop cycle.
More time for new markets
With increased crop yields resulting from improved irrigation, farmers were encouraged by the project to take on a more market-oriented approach to their business, including diversification so they could sell various crops at different times of the year and increase their incomes. As a result, beans have been grown during the dry season when most farmers are growing vegetable crops. Others are growing additional vegetable crops, such as tomatoes, to increase incomes. Maria Alexandre Sitoe, president of the Rivoningo Irrigation Scheme in Gaza Province, said that diversifying into tomatoes has provided her additional earnings of USD340 (CAD454), which she has invested in building her house and educating her children.
By reducing the time spent irrigating, farmers reportedly have more time and savings to invest in other income-generating activities, such as growing fruit trees, cultivating rainfed crops and fishing. For example, one farmer reportedly earned MZN8,000 (CAD170) in one season thanks to the spare time she had to dedicate to rainfed crops. Other farmers have used this saved time to expand the area of their irrigated crops.
When access to markets and essential farm inputs became restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic, FASIMO wanted to ensure the farmers were able to continue cultivating their crops. The research team acquired and offered enough inputs – such as seed (corn, common beans and tomatoes) and fertilizers (NPK and urea) – to cover 0.5 ha per beneficiary. The proceeds from the harvests enabled half of the beneficiaries in Gaza to afford inputs for the subsequent season, plus extra to support their families.
Mapping irrigation hotspots
Mozambique’s irrigation policymakers, such as the National Irrigation Institute (INIR), have scarce data and information on the country’s smallholder irrigation schemes to inform country-wide planning of the sector. The FASIMO project helped fill this information gap by conducting a rapid assessment of the Manica and Gaza irrigation schemes. This activity included mapping all irrigation initiatives and their basic characteristics, such as the number of beneficiaries involved, promoters of the scheme, infrastructure used and irrigation method. This data was shared with INIR, as well as provincial and district-level stakeholders, to enable them to update their national database of irrigation schemes. Emerging findings and recommendations related to the functioning of irrigation schemes, the challenges farmers face and results of the research’s participatory studies with smallholders were shared to equip INIR with evidence-based data.
The research team also made significant progress in developing cost-effective computer models to identify and map irrigated areas using remote sensing. This method allows mapping of large areas that would otherwise be difficult and time-consuming to assess by car. The models show there is extensive irrigated agriculture across the country (80,000 ha) which is mostly farmer-led – the majority of which is not included in formal records. Such findings are useful for INIR. It helps the organization more accurately identify and monitor new sites where farmers are irrigating so they can plan targeted interventions accordingly, such as monitoring crop health and water stress, forecasting agricultural seasons and formulating policies.
Deployment of water-saving technologies by FASIMO has promoted efficient water use by farmers, while simultaneously saving costs and increasing crop yields. Used in conjunction with irrigation systems, which provide farmers with access to water for their crops year-round, the technologies are climate-proofing project beneficiaries in times of drought and erratic rains. With the time and money saved in moving away from inefficient irrigation and high fuel use, the farmers are also venturing into new markets to diversify their incomes and further enhance resilience.
Data collected from the schemes for water-monitoring demonstrate enormous potential for change in irrigation practice and policy. Considering this evidence, Mozambique’s Minister of Agriculture is now promoting the Chameleon technology across all government-led schemes. At the same time, data collected from the project’s irrigation mapping is feeding into country-wide planning for the sector and highlighting to policymakers areas where interventions may be required to support productivity.