A farmer in Tanzania is watering his fields with the help of a petrol pump
The farmers' own irrigation systems are often more effective than the large scale ones built by the government. Photo: Chris de Bont.

Who gets to decide how to water the farmlands? This is the key question that Chris de Bont, newly appointed PhD, has studied in her dissertation at the Department of Human Geography at Stockholm University. With interviews, mapping of the agricultural landscapes and studies of the state policies the thesis gives an overview of the ways farmers and government think about and develop irrigation – the practice of watering farmlands.

In the thesis Chris de Bont argues that it is not the different techniques of leading water to the fields that is the main conflict between how the government and the farmers develop the watering schemes. It is how they value the farmers work.
“The difference between the government policies and farmers’ own irrigation systems often comes down to how they look upon the farmers and their ability to develop good irrigation. Large-scale state initiatives can for example force the farmers to grow maize and rice when it is actually tomatoes that people want to buy. So it’s basically about who gets to decide how the farming is organized” says Chris de Bont.

The farmers’ own irrigation considered unplanned

Chis de Bont, together with fellow researchers Hans Komakech at The Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Tanzania and Gert Jan Veldwisch at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has performed two case studies of the development of irrigation in northern Tanzania, and a historical analysis of the state’s attitudes and policies.

Reseracher Chris de Bont outside the Geo House of Stockholm University
Chris de Bont. Photo Daniel Rossetti/Stockholm University

“Although the farmer-led development of irrigation systems can be productive and effective, it has been considered unplanned, chaotic and constructed only for small-scale farming to feed the closest family – not a part of a modern and commercial agriculture”, says Chris de Bont.  

Both the practices and the official policies express the idea that modernization can only come from external intervention, for example state-sponsored infrastructure such as concrete canals instead of the farmers petrol pump-systems. Although the farmers’ systems often work better, are more flexible and give more economic profit, the farmers are portrayed as passive recipients dependent on the help from the state.

Political considerations make irrigation projects useless

“The transition from a traditional to a modern system becomes almost symbolic. As if only the government’s magical touch makes a method for irrigation improved and modern” says Chris de Bont.

She describes, as an example, the lining of the canals as a result of political considerations, only to be able to classify a piece of land as an area of “modern irrigation”, but without any real improvement for the farmers. Farmers have been forced, by policy makers and foreign funded aid projects, into using irrigation systems that aren’t working for them, according to Chris de Bont. Sometimes whole infrastructure projects are left unused, because they do not match the way in which farmers want to farm.

 “Many farmers are already entrepreneurs and develop infrastructure, in response to market demands. This thesis is in a way a call for people to recognize and value what the farmers are actually doing themselves”, she says.

Reported back to the farmers – and to policy makers

Along with the PhD thesis Chris de Bont also made two booklets out of the case studies, both in English and in Swahili. There was also a feedback workshop organized with one of the groups of farmers included in the research. The practice to report back to people involved in the studies is a tradition with a long history at the Department of Human Geography, Chris de Bont says.

A farmer in Tanzania transporting a petrol pump on a bicycle
The watering schemes are often constructed with petrol pumps. Foto: Chris de Bont.

The booklets also made it easier for the researchers to share their results with irrigation engineers and policy makers from the government. They arranged a course on farmer-led irrigation development with high level policy makers from 14 different African countries at NM-AIST in Arusha, Tanzania.

At the beginning of the research, the question of farmer-led irrigation development was not being discussed frequently by the organizations working with agricultural issues in Africa. But Chris de Bont sees great progress during the last couple of years.
“Now even the World Bank has decided that farmer-led irrigation is one of their main agricultural concepts, and the African Union’s new framework for irrigation has started to discuss it. There has been a big shift”, says Chris de Bont.

More about the research

de Bont, C. (2018). Modernisation and farmer-led irrigation development in Africa : A study of state-farmer interactions in Tanzania (PhD dissertation). Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm. Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:su:diva-155644

For more information, please contact Chris de Bont via e-mail, chris.de.bont@humangeo.su.se