Nick Moon: Alleviating Hunger And Poverty Through Irrigating Africa

By Nick Moon, Founding Director at KickStart International

Benson Maira, a subsistence farmer in a remote area of Zambia, had little formal schooling let alone engineering training. By tinkering with scrap metal, he created an elaborate system to bring water to his house, earning him the nickname “MacGyver” in his village after the 1980’s fictional character famed for his ability to solve complex problems with everyday materials. Despite Benson’s resourcefulness, he was vexed by one challenge: his best fields sat on a slope uphill from a local stream. He knew there had to be an efficient way to water those fields and grow crops on them without eroding the soil. After many attempts at MacGyver-style solutions, he learned about a KickStart MoneyMaker pressure irrigation pump at a demonstration in his local market.

Since he purchased his pump, Benson and his wife, Ruth have significantly increased their income from their farm, earning enough to purchase a water filtration system for clean water, solar panels for electricity, send their children to school – and open a savings account for their youngest daughter. 150,000 people like Benson have used KickStart’s MoneyMaker pump to move from subsistence agriculture to profitable, family-farming enterprises.[1]

With Africa’s population expected to grow to 2.4 billion by 2050[2] and nearly 80% of sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply being grown by smallholder farmers[3], the need to empower  family farmers like Benson is more pressing now than ever. Feeding those families is a monumental task, but one that small farms are capable of.

94% of African agriculture is rain-fed[4]. In regions with only one rainy season, farms are productive only a few months of the year.  With rain-fed production, all the farmers in a community harvest and sell their crops at the same time.  As supply floods the market, crop prices plummet, and up to 50% of that food is spoiled or wasted before it reaches the consumer’s dinner table. In the dry season after the rains have stopped, food becomes scarce and prices rise, sometimes as much as ten times. Farmers stay poor and never have enough to purchase adequate inputs for the next rainy season. This feast-famine production cycle is totally misaligned with demand, which is constant and growing.

Food production must be in sync with demand and to do that, farmers must irrigate – wherever they can. Irrigation isn’t always part of the conversation on empowering smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, but it should be. Irrigation allows a farmer to 1) produce food year-round, timing production to meet market demand, 2) achieve higher yields on often diminishing acreage, and 3) grow crops that are more nutritious and fetch higher prices. 

Contrary to common perception, there is plenty of water in Africa. Enough rain falls on the continent each year to satisfy the water needs of 9 billion people. The challenge is to manage it – to access, store, distribute and use it judiciously. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, you can dig or drill a hole and water is there, often only a few meters below your farm. This shallow groundwater replenishes with each rain - a renewable resource that we can use to irrigate Africa. The potential for irrigation is huge; KickStart estimates 25 million households in Africa could benefit.

KickStart designs and sells low-cost, durable, irrigation pumps that allow poor farmers like Benson to grow and sell high-value fruits and vegetables year round, especially in the long, dry “hungry” seasons when food is scarce. The pumps are human-powered, so farmers never use more water than they need. KickStart’s impact monitoring data consistently has shown that farmers who adopt KickStart’s pumps increase their annual net farm income from an average of $150 to $850 within 36 months, or nearly 500%. As Benson says, “to all my fellow farmers, this is the best of the best manual treadle pumps. It’s called MoneyMaker because that’s what it does.” The most important lesson that KickStart co-Founder, Martin Fisher PhD, and I learned from our years of development work is that a poor person’s number one need is a way to make more money.

With the increased and reliable income that irrigation provides, farmers have greater purchasing power, the power to convert basic needs into market demands. They can pay for what they need and want: more and better food on the table, kids in school, health care, and ultimately, further investments in their business and future. As Benson says, “I teach my children… work hard and get money, but if you don’t spend that money properly, you [will stay] poor. So, I advise my children to keep money and diversify that money in something else, which will also [earn] you money. Then, maybe when I am not here, their life will be better than mine,” he says. That’s good advice for the coming generation of farmers.

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