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New Irrigation System Inspires A Community

iDE powers thousands of Zambian farmers with demonstration plots

Emmanuel Phiri’s predicament was the same as millions of other small-scale farmers in the developing world: he was forced to water his crops by hand.

Without an irrigation system, and inadequate rains, Emmanuel’s family would spend 10 hours a day, fetching water from a nearby creek. Starting at 6am, Emmanuel and his wife Jennifer would each carry two 20-liter (five gallon) buckets on each trip while the children, the youngest who was just 4 at the time, stayed home from school and hauled whatever they could manage. 

“It was very difficult,” says Emmanuel. “To water our field, it would take the whole day using buckets.”

But with the help of iDE, Emmanuel has overcome his challenges and as a designated “lead farmer” is now a major source of inspiration to hundreds of small scale farmers across his low income, rural community.

His newfound community standing and turnaround in fortunes began two years ago.

Recognizing Emmanuel’s work ethic and wherewithal, an iDE-trained Farm Business Advisor (FBA) approached the farmer and asked if he would take part in an agricultural program to showcase productivity-enhancing technologies.

With assistance from the FBA – iDE has trained hundreds of Zambian FBAs to teach others how to run their farms as businesses – Emmanuel’s demonstration plot has now become an informal community hub, where groups of like minded farmers come to see his labor-saving irrigation system.

On designated days, dozens of farmers descend on Emmanuel’s plot, where they are linked to agricultural input salespeople, who also attend the community days, and sell products such as high yield seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, often difficult to source in remote, rural areas. 

“I’m doing something for the community,” says Emmanuel. “I call the farmers. They come and see what I am doing, what equipment I’m using.”

And what he’s doing is impressive. Emmanuel’s farm now boasts a mechanized irrigation system, which uses a diesel-powered pump and pipes to draw water from the creek up into a raised tank beside his field.

From the tank, water descends through a system of narrow pipes between his crop rows. Gravity-created pressure pushes water through perforations in the pipes, quenching his freshly-planted cabbages and butternut squash.

The drip and spray system means Emmanuel no longer has to pour water directly on the crops, which can cause erosion and wash away fertilizer. Nor does he need to constantly walk up and down the crop rows, which can be damaging to the plants and compact the soil. 

“If a lot of farmers can venture into mechanized irrigations like this one, we will be fighting poverty,” says iDE field officer, Handson Kumwenda.

The Phiri Family

For Emmanuel, the significant increase in family income has been transformative. Instead of fetching water for 10 hours a day, all four children now go to school, and he has much more time to work on other tasks.

Emmanuel says his eldest child now goes to a boarding high school and plans to become a priest. “I am very proud of them all.”

3 2 Phiri Family Call Out

Under the Strengthening Farmer Incomes program, directed at 15,000 Zambian farmers, iDE has worked to implement a broad and sustainable strategy that demonstrates how modern irrigation technologies, and other interventions, can significantly boost their incomes.

iDE Zambia country director Sylvester Kalonge says rural smallholder farmers are known to be risk-averse, however, seeing is believing and trust is essential.

“When farmers can see first-hand the results of growing new crops or using new techniques on a farm similar to their own, their risk of trying it themselves is greatly reduced,” says Kalonge. 

He added that lead farmers are often the first in their communities to adopt new techniques or try growing new crops. iDE leverages these role models to showcase the results of their endeavors to their neighbors.

A 2015 report by Hystra, a global consulting firm that works with business and social sector pioneers to design and implement inclusive business approaches that are profitable and scalable, says it is important that development organizations identify the right farmers and “over-invest” in their farms through tailored and intensive support.

“These smallholder farmers must be resilient and show willingness to try new methods, but not prosperous enough to be satisfied with the status quo,” says the report. 

“Most importantly, they should be respected individuals with a good reputation and ties to the rest of the community, as well as have an entrepreneurial mindset.” 

Emmanuel’s demonstration plot has influenced many in his community to try mechanized irrigation for themselves.

Instead of growing his cash crops once a year – the usual practice – the constant supply of water means he can now grow them continuously, bringing in the harvest three times annually.

On his half hectare plot, he grows 3,000 cabbage heads at a time, selling them at 5 Kwacha a piece, grossing him 15,000 Kwacha. The net income from his first year was enough to pay for his irrigation system.

Airtight Bags Reduce Food Losses After Harvests

Zambia’s 1.5 million smallholder farmers produce some 80 percent of the domestic food supply. However, they aren’t generating income at their full potential, partly because a significant amount of their food is being inadvertently destroyed after it is harvested.

Some estimate that post-harvest losses among smallholder farmers in Zambia, resulting from inadequate storage, range between 20 percent and 40 percent for legumes, and between 14 percent and 17.5 percent for maize.

To reduce losses, iDE is working with Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture, and German pharmaceutical and biotech company Bayer, on an innovative project to make post-harvest storage technologies accessible to farmers.

Under the Post Harvest Loss Venture pilot project, farmers are being encouraged to utilize “hermetic bags” – a modern improvement on the traditional grain sack;  it contains  plastic liners within a woven bag.

“The farmer puts the produce inside the inner plastic liner and presses and ties, eliminating air, suffocating any pests such as weevils that are inside,” said Kanyata Muchula, senior agricultural officer in the Central Province, where the bags are being promoted.

“If the bag is used correctly, and is properly sealed, you can store crops for over one year without the application of chemicals.”

Muchula added that farmers liked the bags because they allowed them to store their produce and wait for the price of grain to spike. “Sometimes early in the season the market is flooded with produce and prices are lower.”

While more expensive than traditional grain sacks, hermetic bags, which come in 50 kg and 100 kg sizes, can be used multiple times. With the amount of grain saved by the bags, the additional cost is quickly recovered.

To raise awareness about hermetic bags, iDE is working to train agro dealers on the benefits of the bags, who in turn sell them to farmers. More than 50,000 Zambian farmers have been shown how to use the bags under the pilot project.