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 This site is no longer being updated, but allows access to GWI outputs until 1 October 2020 when it will also close.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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Empowering smallholders

GWI believes that smallholders need to be directly involved in decisions made on agricultural processes throughout the system of production and trade. For this to happen in large dam-irrigated agricultural schemes, government policies and agencies need to recognise and support different types of smallholder farmers, whilst respecting the collective requirements of the scheme overall.


There is plenty of evidence that smallholders are creative and generate relevant innovations – new and better ways of farming – which enable them to adapt to changes in climate, economies and markets, as well as to social change. But agricultural policies and investments need to create a conducive environment for this to happen.

In the GWI West Africa focus countries, we have found that it is institutional innovation that holds the greatest potential for smallholders in large scale irrigated areas. Functioning institutions that support smallholder farmers along the entire agricultural value chain, are a prerequisite for economically viable, environmentally sound and socially fair farming systems.

Recognising the different needs of smallholder farmers

Smallholder farmers are not a homogenous group and they differ in their priorities, strategies and resources. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to smallholder farming, as our research on different types of rice farmers in irrigated areas in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal has shown. Most farmers pursue a range of different livelihood strategies, with rice cultivation being only one of them.

Despite this, governments in West Africa continue to prioritise investment in agribusiness and ‘specialised’ agriculture – such as rice monoculture – over investment in small-scale farming by smallholders and family farmers.

Our work: identifies constraints and opportunities for smallholder production and supports farmers to co-design, with government agencies and the private sector, processes that deliver improvements in the rice farming system.

Appropriate and adaptive agricultural advice

Functioning agricultural advisory services (AAS) are a key part of the system. They not only provide advice on agricultural production issues, but also on accessing inputs, processing and marketing. They are essential for raising rice-farming productivity and incomes for smallholder farmers. Currently, the lack of functioning and adaptive agricultural advisory services is a constraint for rice farmers in West Africa.

Our work: seeks to shift agricultural advice away from a top down approach towards a system where farmers can articulate what type of adapted advisory and other agricultural services they require.

We are working with local stakeholders in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal to:

  • Facilitate the development, validation and implementation of local action plans to improve agricultural advisory systems and the relationships between farmer organisations and dam management agencies.
  • Advocate at a national and regional level for quality investment and policies that support the development of accountable and performing agricultural advisory services that are based on the needs of smallholder farmers.
  • Investigate further the quantitative evidence on the different types of rice production systems and the key discrimination factors that affect productivity and viability.

Secure land tenure: an essential ingredient for smallholder productivity

Throughout West Africa smallholders in public large irrigation schemes lack secure tenure. Renting or sale of plots is forbidden, the existing weak land tenure arrangements make it difficult to secure credit, and inheritance of plots is also uncertain. Smallholders who feel that the land is not their own are less likely to invest in ways of increasing production. In addition, those who may wish to expand their area of cultivation are often unable to do so as they cannot obtain more land or because they do not have the security of tenure which would enable them to obtain the credit for new inputs.

An additional complication is that – despite the large investments made in hydro-agricultural schemes – the land is often not legally registered to the government and therefore any land tenure contracts with farmers would be invalid also.

GWI West Africa is working with communities, producer organisations, dam authorities and government representatives in Niger to develop processes for structuring secure tenure in the Kandadji dam area. For more information on this process – see: Niger

We are also working at a regional level by participating in several thematic working groups led by the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) to implement the recommendations on land tenure made in the Dakar Declaration on irrigation in the Sahel.