Only 6% of Africa’s farmlands is irrigated; changing it will massively impact the entire continent

Imagine a professional basketball player wearing sneakers only 6 per cent of the time. Or an international banking chain, with only 6 per cent of the branches having a safe.

Strange, right? Although these are absurd, hard-to-imagine scenarios, this is precisely the situation in a much more substantial and fundamental field: the agriculture sector in Africa, with only 6 per cent of farmlands across the continent receiving permanent irrigation.

Currently relying on rainwater or manual irrigation, the sector’s productivity is considered to be the lowest in the world.

A dramatic effect

While 6 per cent is the official number across the continent, a deeper look into data reveals a particularly bleak reality. While in Sub-Saharan Africa only 4 per cent of agricultural land is irrigated, in the northern continent the figure is 28 per cent, with over two-thirds of agricultural areas equipped with irrigation systems located in only five countries (Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and Madagascar.

Most African farmers rely on rainwater, often irregular and rarely sufficient, or on existing water sources (many in the form of rainwater pools) often containing polluted water, which may cause serious damage to the field and crops, and later on to those consuming the crops.

The effect of irrigation systems on the crop has been dramatic and known for many years. It is estimated that land that is irrigated regularly yields twice or more crop than land irrigated by rain and manual irrigation alone: the crops are higher, the amount increases, and the season lengthens. Thus, the absence of irrigation systems in 94 per cent of agricultural lands (96 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa) is the main reason why the sector’s productivity is considered to be the lowest in the world.

Time for change

This reality can and should change. Through smart and calculated investment, the percentage of agricultural areas irrigated across the continent can be dramatically increased, resulting in a significant increase in productivity. A more efficient agricultural sector will yield a much (much) higher crop, benefiting the entire continent: the economy will grow, jobs will be created, exports will increase, imports will decrease, and food prices will become cheaper.

Today, irrigation systems are much more accessible and affordable than ever before, with advanced technology systems enabling the use of extremely affordable energy sources. At Ignite Power, we provide our customers with solar-based irrigation systems that utilize the sunlight to pump water into large fields at a very low cost. Many other systems exist in the market, providing a wide range of additional solutions.

Although the agricultural sector in Sub-Saharan Africa employs about 60 per cent of the population and is responsible for 23 per cent of the GDP, its productivity remains far behind the rest of the world. Just like cultivating a field, the first step is irrigation; in this case, a considerable improvement in the irrigation situation 

The writer is the founder of Ignite Power, a solar power firm in Rwanda

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