Revolutionizing Kenyan Irrigation for Food Security Boom

Revolutionizing Kenyan Irrigation for Food Security Boom

By Curity Ogada

Growing up in the early 1990s, I remember periods of longer droughts, and we would go hungry a few times. It was not really surprising to miss food for a day or two. Neighbors would borrow maize flour when things got tough, and granaries ran dry. 

Come to think of it, this could have easily been avoided. I blame it on a lack of knowledge, but my community could have greatly benefited if they made proper use of the River Kisian and River Kanyaboli for irrigation to ensure food security all year round. 

Thankfully, this is no longer the case. With more knowledgeable people in my community, they have gathered skills in irrigation practices and climate-smart agriculture, like farming sorghum to beat unpredictable weather conditions, which have not only gotten worse but are even more delicate thanks to climate change. 


My community is awake, but this is not the case in other areas like Turkana, which faces harsher climate effects like extreme droughts and floods. Just this year alone, Turkana, Kenya, faced some of its worst seasons, with both human and animal lives lost. 

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, the total area equipped for irrigation is about 5.4 million hectares in the Nile Basin countries, while the cropped area is estimated at 6.4 million hectares.

Despite the prominent role of irrigation, the overall majority (over 87%) of cultivated land in the Nile Basin is under rainfed agriculture.

In 2021–2022, Kenya and several other countries in the Horn of Africa experienced severe and prolonged droughts, particularly affecting Turkana County. According to UNICEF, over 900,000 children in Kenya needed humanitarian assistance due to the extended period of drought. Drought and food security are closely intertwined challenges.

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Source: Map by ACAPS using IPC 28/09/2022

With the rapid population growth in the Nile Basin, there is a need for alternative food sources. Although there has been a dependence on rain-fed agriculture for years, an irregular weather pattern is forcing farmers to look for ways to ensure sufficient food production and even food security. 

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, agriculture is the largest consumer of Nile water; over 80% of the Nile’s water is currently used for agriculture.

Alexandratos and Bruinsma (2012) estimated that nearly all agricultural expansion in the world (irrigated and rainfed) will take place in developing countries.

Kales flourishing under home irrigation in Rusinga Island, Homabay

With irrigation, reaching food security would be a near-attainable goal. It allows farmers to plant early, even enjoy more cycles in a year, and definitely higher yields compared to rain-fed agriculture, which is currently vulnerable thanks to climate change.

A publication by Research Direct, from different researchers on improving irrigation efficiency in the Nile basin, found that water consumption is globally driven by agricultural demand to grow food and feed people and animals, and to decrease water consumption by agriculture, there is a need to manage rainfall. Unreasonable irrigation can easily deplete water resources. 

“Most of our people rely on irrigation from rivers, streams, and natural water sources. Additionally, there is irrigation from rainfed areas where farmers can collect water from wells and dams. 

However, many farmers have turned to surface irrigation,” explains Joseph Ogwal, an environmental researcher based in Uganda. He delves into the concept of irrigation and shares techniques smallholder farmers can use to enhance food security within their communities.

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Joseph Ogwal, an environmental researcher at the Ministry of Water and Environment, Uganda.

“Most of our farmers are smallholders, each owning no more than 5 acres of land. Therefore, they can consider using motorized irrigation systems to irrigate their fields. These systems can be powered by solar energy or by drawing water from wells or small dams, then distributed onto their farmlands. Another profitable option is diesel-powered irrigation systems,” Ogwal continues.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) Secretariat (Nile-Sec) conducted a Strategic Water Resources Analysis (SWRA) in 2015 to develop sustainable options to meet the growing water needs of the Nile riparian countries, and subsequently to mitigate current and future water stress.

It is envisaged that options for water savings in agriculture, such as the adoption of improved irrigation technologies, optimization of cropping patterns across the basin and other measures, could result in substantial gains across the Nile Basin. 

The SWRA analysis revealed that Kenya has set itself a national irrigation development goal of 1.2 Mha by 2030 to strengthen its agricultural sector so that it can contribute more to the national economy. The development target includes large-scale (public), small-scale (smallholders) and private irrigation schemes. The country’s 2013 Master Plan identifies a catchment-based area with irrigation potential and a newly updated irrigation development area, which incorporates a water balance study. 

From the data above, it is crystal clear that there are gaps and lots of potential. Could it be a lack of knowledge of irrigation techniques? What could be the real way forward to ensure sufficient food in Kenya? 

“Science can contribute to food security by advancing innovation in solar technology and user-friendly water discharge equipment. Collaboration between scientists and farmers is vital to imparting new irrigation techniques through extension education, facilitated by journalists through mass media. Additionally, the government’s investment in farmer field schools, where experiential learning empowers farmers, is crucial. Joseph Ogwal emphasizes that people learn best from community members who understand their challenges.

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Maize plantation in Rusinga Island, largely depending on rain-fed agriculture

Ogwal strongly emphasizes that any irrigation technique failing to conserve water at its source is inherently flawed. Farmers must assess their farms’ water needs and avoid excessive use, especially in arid regions. Timing is critical, and irrigating during periods of lower evaporation is advised. Furthermore, investing in high-quality irrigation devices that do not compromise potable water sources is essential. Lastly, continuous education and knowledge upgrading are paramount for farmers.”

The Nile Basin Initiative ascertains that government investment is needed for the development of rural economies. Rural economies cannot develop without improved infrastructure and electrification to support agro-processing and storage, credit facilities, and training. Agricultural investment is needed in soil improvement and soil degradation control, water-control infrastructure and irrigation facilities, and animal health management.

In 2023 the Government of Kenya announced plans to put three million acres of land under irrigation farming by 2030 to bolster food security, Kenya News Agency reported. This will include rehabilitating existing irrigation and establishing new irrigation schemes. The government also called on farmers to embrace climate-smart irrigation as part of efforts to enhance food security and value addition.

As Lankford (2003) argues there must be a positive balance of benefits against risks and costs of irrigation. A more secure and increased crop productivity, improved planning and timing of the start of the cropping season and extended harvest season, and raised number of jobs and income are some knock-on effects that show how irrigation facilitates economic transactions and improves livelihoods and the wealth and infrastructure of whole villages.

This story was produced by InfoNile with support from Media in Cooperation and Transition

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