The Global Water Initiative (GWI) was an action-research and advocacy programme that ran from 2008-17. The project is now closed. This site is no longer being updated, but allows access to GWI outputs until 1 October 2020 when it will also close. After that date, information about the project and core GWI technical publications will continue to be available from the IIED website and Publications Library.

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"Breaking taboos" between farmers and managers in irrigation schemes

Gifty Narh's picture
Gifty Narh

The agricultural support and advice available to family farms in irrigation schemes in West Africa is not adapted to their specific needs. Now, action plans are being drawn up through discussion between agricultural producers and the agencies managing the schemes. Could this be a new way of working?

Agricultural adviser at the Sélingué irrigation scheme in Mali. Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI (2015).

Agricultural adviser at the Sélingué irrigation scheme in Mali. Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI (2015).

Food security is the great challenge at the heart of development policy in West Africa. Governments have been making large-scale investments in building big dams for hydropower and irrigation, in a major effort to control and manage their water resources and to increase and diversify agricultural production. But in many cases the results of these large infrastructure projects have fallen far short of their potential and family farming livelihoods have remained precarious.  

The Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa has been working on a research-action process since 2012 in three irrigation schemes: Bagré in Burkina Faso, Niandouba/Confluent in Senegal, and Sélingué in Mali. Through this process GWI works with all the stakeholders to build strategies for using the irrigation schemes in an effective and equitable way and to enable the households involved to improve their food security and their resilience to climate change.

Establishing a system of agricultural support to fit the needs of family farms was identified by all the stakeholders as the key to resolving these problems. The term 'support' here includes technical advice, institutional and governance structures, the value chain, etc. 

Participatory action plans to improve agricultural support

After carrying out detailed studies of the current state of agricultural advice and support in Bagré, Niandouba/Confluent and Sélingué, GWI facilitated a process of participatory planning, which resulted in action plans to improve support services in each of these three sites:

These action plans were drawn up using a participatory approach which was both inclusive and iterative. They are the outcome of a consensus between agencies managing the irrigation schemes, farmer organisations and the other actors who play a role in supporting producers in the dam project areas (e.g. researchers, NGOs etc.). The planning process was led by a small working group and the results were developed and endorsed through debate and discussion in a large multi-actor forum. The resulting plans are therefore documents based on consensus; they can be developed further in the light of local opportunities and constraints, and will serve as guides to managers and farmer organisations for improving support services to producers in the future. 

National level workshops were organised in Dakar, Ouagadougou and Bamako in June 2015 to share the findings of the analyses and action plans with national governments, technical and financial partners and leaders of rural organisations, and to encourage them to support the implementation of the programmes of action being proposed. 

There were fruitful discussions and exchanges of views at these workshops about the findings of the action-research. The participants approved of the inclusive nature of the process and the original way in which the action plans were developed using innovative approaches and methods. They felt that direct dialogue between management agencies and farmer organisations had contributed to “breaking the taboos” between these two types of key actors in the management of dams, and had laid the foundations for strong partnerships based on a common vision of how to improve the quality of agricultural support at the dam project sites. 

Looking to the future

Reflections and discussions during the workshops gave rise to three major conclusions which should guide governments and their technical and financial partners in future:

  1. Agricultural advice and support is essential if hydro-agricultural development projects are to succeed. Implementation of the action plans at the three pilot sites must be accompanied closely, to build working support structures which respond to the needs of producers and ensure access to services which are relevant to the different types of farming enterprises in the irrigation scheme. The value of the action plans will depend on how they are implemented.   
  2. An inclusive multi-stakeholder approach has enabled new levels of trust to be established between management agencies and farmer organisations. Beyond their specific and sometimes divergent interests, these parties are now allied in the aim to improve advice and support services for family farms, in partnership with other actors (private support structures, technical government services...). However, it is still vital to define appropriate and sustainable mechanisms to ensure that dialogue continues between the stakeholders about issues of agricultural support.  
  3. Building the capacities of farmer organisations is a key dimension for improving support services. These organisations have to be equipped to be capable of structuring the demand for support and advice, and to monitor the quality of its provision.  

To find out more: read the GWI briefing on 'Making agricultural advice work for smallholder farmers'