KWALE, Kenya (PAMACC News) - Expansive lush sugarcane plantations stretching to 8000 hectares in Kenya’s semi arid Kwale County along the coastal line is a clear testimony that irrigated agriculture could be the magic bullet for a green revolution in Africa.
Yields at the Kwale sugar plantation are higher than they would be were it rain-fed, and there is no need to worry about variations in seasonal rainfall, said Pamela Ogada, the general manager for the KISCOL Sugar Company, which owns the site.
Irrigation has been "the magic bullet" for the global agricultural revolution, said Prof Nuhu Hatibu, the regional head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which works to improve farming across the continent.
Now AGRA has said it will work to mobilize billions of dollars in cash and kind through different partners to ensure that smallholder farmers - from individuals to cooperatives - can benefit from irrigation.
This $9 billion, according to Hatibu was promised by the World Bank, and it will be through loans to governments.
The World Bank has pledged to work with the African Development Bank and other organisations to provide the money to African governments to improve irrigation, said Steven Schonberger, the World Bank's global lead for water in agriculture.
Financing for the effort is still being put together, Schonberger said, but "we are very optimistic about it because a lot of financing is already there."
The money could begin to flow as soon as 2019, he said.
The project will target water from multiple sources that include rivers, streams, stored rain water and groundwater.
They are still in the planning stage, and so far they cannot tell how many African countries will express interest, and have not decided when the funding will be rolled out. AGRA will help countries develop national strategies and also capacity building. The starting point according to Hatibu will be mapping of the groundwater aquifers in various countries before deciding on which crops to be grown.
He says that AGRA will have an microfinance facility known as ‘Irrigation Fund’ through which the private sector can access money for putting up the infrastructure, such as constructing dams, wells, piping and different forms of storage.
Nearly all countries in Africa set up large projects post-independence to support irrigation and mechanisation programs after independence, Hatibu said. But they were not properly implemented, and all failed.
"What happened in other countries - those failures pushed them to look for solutions. But in Africa, we got paralysed and declared that irrigation was bad," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Raj Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of AGRA's key funders, said Africa's challenge was not over-irrigation but under-irrigation.
"Compared to any other agriculture-producing economy on the planet, Africa uses very little irrigation and very little fertiliser," he said.
And, he added, the Green Revolution should be unique to Africa and should take water scarcity into account.
"Especially now that it's been 40 years and we know how to avoid the negative environmental consequences of nitrogen runoffs, excess fertiliser use and over irrigation," he said.
But how is this going to be possible without running into the same problems as India, whose quest to improve productivity through irrigation ended up depleting all the underground aquifers faster than they expected?
Research funded through the British government's UK Aid program - Unlocking the Potential of Groundwater for the Poor (UpGro) - has shown that the water table in some African countries is declining.
One project looked at shallow groundwater systems used by smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, and found increased competition for the resource, said Behailu Berehanu, a hydrologist at the Addis Ababa Science and Technology University and one of the researchers.
"With the growing trends of water use for industry, community water supply, rapid urbanisation, rapid growth of irrigated areas - definitely sustainability will be questionable," he told PAMACC News.
"The main problem, and it cuts across many African countries, is that we do not have proper integrated groundwater resources management practices," he said.
AGRA's Hatibu said the irrigation project would benefit from applying technology and best practice from other parts of the world to ensure there is sustainable and efficient use of water.
"We must not run away from our problems. All we need is to look for solutions to those problems," he said, adding that Ethiopia, for instance, was promoting irrigation by mapping shallow and medium- aquifers across the country.
"That is a very important investment to deal with resilient systems. This will help to have a well-balanced design of how much pumping is happening in relation to the recharge," he said.
With increased knowledge, Hatibu said, it was possible to recharge artificially - especially with shallow aquifers.
"For example, rice fields are very good recharge mechanisms for groundwater systems," he said.
The solution, he added, required identifying where the recharge basin for the aquifers was located, then finding a mechanism to direct rain- or river-water to the aquifer to recharge it.
And while some aquifers might require just one season to recharge, others might need longer.
"So whenever you decide to use an aquifer, ask yourself: what is the recharge basin for that aquifer? If the recharge basin can be used for rice paddies, then you can grow rice as you recharge the groundwater system at the same time," he said.
So far, the Rockefeller Foundation (one of the AGRA funders) is working to bring the 'Smart Power' programme to East Africa in order to help rural communities take advantage of new solar technology that makes it cheap and affordable to reach rural communities with off-grid renewable energy solutions.
The Smart Power programme has been highly successful in India where communities have been able to set up mini-grids. Through the programme, farmers have put up agro processing equipments and irrigation projects that can run on solar power. Excess power is also sold to the national grid to fetch income for communities.
Shah said that he has already discussed with Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, and they had agreed on implementing the Smart Power Programme in Uganda, as a starting point.
"That is what is required to be successful in agriculture," said Shah.