Burundi: Local irrigation, a substitute for skyrocketing prices of new watering supplies

Burundi: Local irrigation, a substitute for skyrocketing prices of new watering supplies

Two years on from the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the costs of supplying modern irrigation equipment have soared, compelling small-scale farmers to turn to traditional irrigation techniques to boost the production of their crops within a short timeframe.

By Espoir Iradukunda and Arthur Bizimana,

Carrying a watering can in both hands, Désiré Nimenya was irrigating his onion field during a short sunny period in the beginning of October. According to Nimenya, a farmer in Murore, Busoni commune in Kirundo province of northern Burundi, onions require a large amount of water to grow. 

“Nevertheless, the irrigation equipment to water them is now very expensive. Their prices have ballooned since the COVID-19 pandemic surged,” he said.

Pascal Ntakirutimana, a shopkeeper of irrigation supplies, said that the price of irrigation equipment such as crop sprayers has almost doubled.  

“A sprayer rose from BIF 70,000 (approximately $35) in March 2020, before the state restricted the borders to contain the spread of the COVID-19, to BIF 110,000 (approximately $55),” Ntakirutimana said. In March 2022, that price had risen even more, to BIF 120,000. 

He added that in his experience, the prices of irrigation materials had never been so high.

This increase in prices also impacts the prices of plant protection products and quality seeds. For example, a packet of white onion seed that used to cost between BIF 26,000 and 28,000 in March 2020 cost around BIF 45,000 and 50,000 in October 2021  – an increase of about 79 percent in less than two years, Ntakirutimana said. 

With regard to phytosanitary substances, which protect plants from diseases, he mentioned Ridomil, which has risen from BIF 17,000 to sometimes more than BIF 25,000. Yet, without phytosanitary pesticides, rodents attack their farms, the farmer said. 

“Fields are being destroyed under our eyes. Also the sales of these irrigation materials is an uphill battle.” 

Ntakirutimana, a shopkeeper of irrigation supplies
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Potato field in Kayanza province (northern Burundi), prepared to be irrigated

In northwest Burundi, Kayanza province, the prices of irrigation materials have also  increased. 

“At the Kayanza market, watering cans, sprayers and white onion seeds have risen from BIF 6,000, 50,000 and 25,000 to BIF 10,000, 100,000 and 45,000 respectively,” said Jean Claude Niyonkuru, a shopkeeper. This rise in prices also hits quality potato seed, a kilogram of which has increased from BIF 1,500 to BIF 2,500, he said. 

In Kayanza, the cost of the phytosanitary product referred to as “Rocketo” has risen almost twofold, from BIF 3,000 to 5,000. Albert, a farmer from Matongo, said that farmers are running to their loss. Other varieties of fungicides such as Dithane are no longer available on the local market.

“Following the decline in the pace of economic activity as a result of Covid-19, it is clear that the prices of irrigation equipment and plant protection products have risen. Sometimes they can’t even be found,” said Adelin Niyonsaba, Provincial Director of the Environment, Agriculture and Livestock in Kayanza province. 

Why are prices for irrigation equipment on the uptick?

According to Jean Claude Niyonkuru, a tradesman of agricultural equipment in the urban center of Kayanza province, the price rises are due to COVID-19 restriction measures, even though they have since been relaxed. 

“The rise in the retail price of agricultural equipment is mainly linked to the decline in the flow of goods and people following the measures taken by the government, which included the shutdown of borders to curb the pandemic.”

“This means imports take longer to arrive and at a higher price,” he added. 

Although some borders have since opened, retailers now say that shipment has become more expensive and takes longer than it used to do. For example, cargo takes longer due to continued COVID-19 compliance measures such as providing negative tests, where truck drivers who test positive must return to their countries of origin and recruit another driver, delaying shipment.

“Non-tariff barriers related to COVID-19 as well as delays on the borders have been one of the drivers to escalating prices. This is connected to the coronavirus pandemic compliances such as testing.”

Christian Nibasuma, Country Representative of Trade Mark East Africa (TMEA).

All these measures, he added, naturally had an impact on the volume of trade between Burundi and her trading partners within EAC and beyond including failure to maintain prices variations.

According to the Provincial Director Niyonsaba, this hike in prices of irrigation materials is hurting producers. 

“Farmers are buying an insufficient quantity of onion seeds and are then forced to maintain only one onion field, whereas before the pandemic, they maintained two or even three onion fields,” he said. 

“Many small-scale producers have found themselves unable to farm as they did before Covid-19 since this economic crisis broke out.” 

According to Nimenya, there are farmers who prefer to rent out their plots of land rather than farm a limited area. They rent their land cheaply.

“To date, [for] producers who depend entirely on rainfall for their water supply; their production is constrained to the two seasons A and B. Season A (Agatasi) runs from September to February, while season B begins in February and ends in May. Season C is a part of the past for them,” he said.

Désiré Nimenya, Farmer in Kirundo province.

He also said that farming vegetables, especially onions, is better for large-scale producers and is becoming difficult for small-scale farmers, given that it is demanding both in terms of finance and technology. 

Some water projects intended to increase irrigation were also delayed by the pandemic. This includes a project by the Coopérative du Développement Laitier de Kiryama (CDLK), located in Bururi in the southwest. 

“The project for the construction and supply of materials associated with the 60-hectare pumping station system promised by donors was to begin at the beginning of April 2020. We have been waiting, but in vain,” Nzinahora said. 

As an immediate solution, the Minister of Environment, Agriculture and Livestock, Deo Guide Rurema, said that the state has distributed 80 watering cans to cooperatives. However, given the number of applicants (5,756 registered cooperatives), these watering cans remain insignificant.

According to Niyonsaba, the appeal to farmers is not to give up even if the conditions are difficult –  a warning that seems to have been heard.

Emerging solutions by small-scale farmers

In Bururi, southern Burundi, northern Kayanza and Kirundo, small-scale farmers have confronted these challenges by revamping the irrigation sector. 

The CDLK in Bururi is one of the cooperatives that has incorporated new local irrigation methods. 

It has established a local irrigation system that taps spring water from hilltops and circulates it through canals along the slopes, including digging long canals called sub-irrigation (up to 50 kilometers) or manual irrigation using watering cans and rope tubes (up to 500 meters). Farmers can access water by connecting to nozzles at different points in the network.

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Water pipe facilitating irrigation

Jean Claude Nzinahora, the CDLK president and technician in charge of irrigation projects, said, “With this long canal, our cooperative can cover 20 hectares. We also plan to irrigate the entire 60-hectare hillside in two years.”

However, canalizing the water didn’t work for some small-scale farmers who failed to properly replicate the model. 

“It swept away even my potato field and legumes,” lamented Tatien Kwizera, a farmer from Kayanza.  “I had made a canal to irrigate my field, because the irrigation equipment ordered from China took a long time to reach me. However, this canal has been the source of all evils since my field has been washed away by these river floods,” he added. 

IMG 20210930 175155
Irrigation canal diverted to the River Kibazwa by CDLK watering 20 hectares (Bururi, southwest)

Other farmers have innovated other solutions to the price hikes. “Certain producers started working together to buy irrigation equipment such as sprayers, whereby two or three farmers team up and collect a little money at the end of the month to buy all the necessary kits,” said Nimenya, the farmer in Kirundo. 

Other farmers have resorted to the use of homemade watering cans – “pots or cans with holes in the base,” he added. 

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Watering cans used by farmers for irrigation

Though farmer Salvator Ndayizeye lacks modern irrigation kits adapted to his region, he has managed to obtain a locally made motor pump that irrigates 5 hectares out of his 20 hectares of land. 

So far, the state has invested tremendous efforts to upgrade and expand the consumption of tap water. The figures show that the number of people consuming tap water has jumped from 15.6 percent in 2001 to 38.2 percent in 2018, whereas the rate of people consuming river water has been declining from 14.8 to 3.5 percent throughout the same period. 

Nevertheless, irrigation has lagged behind. Whereas Burundi’s irrigation potential is vast at 215,000 hectares (75,000 hectares within the western Imbo plains and the eastern Moso depression, 20,000 hectares of shallows at the foot of the hills, and 120,000 hectares of marshes), Burundi’s total surface irrigation in 2018 stood at just 3.2 percent of this potential. This indicates that the country is failing to capitalize fully on its resources. 

What if production is affected?

Though locally-based irrigation techniques have had some success helping farmers adapt to the crisis, they have not reached the level expected in the era of modern irrigation equipment. Furthermore, maize production has decreased. 

“Whereas before the COVID-19 pandemic, we harvested 4 tons of maize per hectare, yields have dropped since the use of these new local methods, because we cannot irrigate the entire territory as we should,” said Ndayizeye. “[This year] we harvested only 2.5 tons of maize. By the end, the maize yield was not satisfactory, whereas we are compelled to exert lots of effort.”

Nimenya’s onion production also dropped from 1,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms per hectare.  Nzinahora’s output was also slashed in half. 

The latest figures from the monthly price bulletins for dry red beans, purple potatoes and local sweet potatoes, three crops often grown in season C (dry season) and where irrigation equipment is used, from November 2019 before COVID-19 and the same month in 2020 after COVID-19, show that prices have increased due to the cost of inputs. 

The agricultural sector is the lifeblood of the Burundian economy. According to the Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies of Burundi, it employs more than 90 percent of the population on nearly 1 million family farms of about 0.50 hectares on average per household. It contributes 44 percent of the GDP and 95 percent of Burundi’s export earnings. 

Burundian agriculture has traditionally depended on rainfall, yet since 2017 the government has aimed to reverse this trend, as indicated by the Minister of the Environment, Agriculture and Livestock, Dr. Rurema. 

Due to climate change, rainfall has been decreasing in recent years. 

According to the latest report on the environment published by the Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, rainfall in Kirundo has decreased significantly in a period of 9 years. It went from 1,143.6 millimeters in 2007 to 777.9 millimeters in 2016. 

When climate change becomes a source of famine

Not only farmers have been affected by lack of irrigation kits, but also climate change has hampered their daily activities. 

“Burundi has experienced either heavy rains that drove strong erosions or the sun that hit hard due to scarcity of rainfall,” said environmentalist and professor at the National University of Burundi, Jean Marie Sabushimike. 

“This changing climate affects the small farmer as well. Rainfall patterns are fluctuating. They are sometimes abundant and sometimes rare. The first ones devastate the agricultural fields, while the last ones cut them down and are the cause of the shortages,” . 

Marie Sabushimike

“Besides the fact that climate change carries off the fields, it depletes and degrades the soil,” he added. 

Climate shifts caused famine in Kirundo province in the early 2000s. The FAO reported that about 350,000 people were hit. Antoine Karenzo, 51, belongs to this group of environmental victims. He has bad memories of 2001: “I remember fleeing to Tanzania to escape starvation with my wife and two children,” he said. 

Kirundo province used to be the barn of Burundi. In memory of its overproduction of beans, the Burundians even nicknamed certain types of beans “kirundo”.      

A major study on agricultural water use, entitled Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, by the International Water Management Institute, noted a strong correlation between hunger, poverty and water. 

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.

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