Innovative Irrigation Brings Possibilities to Malawi

February 28, 2018
Alma Aliaj, USAIDBentry Neba, a local extension agent who works with farmers at Horizon Farms, shows off healthy sweet potato vines grown with drip irrigation technology.

A green stretch of sweet potato, groundnut and paprika grows in the middle of vast, dry land. That’s the contrasting view visitors see at Horizon Farm – one of Malawi’s anchor farms just outside the capital city, Lilongwe.

It is the only patch of green crop here. It has been a long summer in Malawi, but the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes and paprika that would have otherwise had to wait for the arrival of rain are already budding and developing tubers.

“Everyone is amazed that while the rest of the land is dry, we have a beautiful crop,” said Horizon Farm’s Chief Executive Officer Jim Goodman.  With Feed the Future’s support, Horizon Farm demonstrates agricultural technologies that can help Malawians increase food security in eight districts.

Several technologies have contributed to the success of Horizon Farm, but perhaps none is more important than drip irrigation. It has made an enormous difference – turning dusty, dry soil at the farm into green arable land, even outside the rainy season.

“With drip irrigation, we can have three agricultural cycles at this farm,” Goodman explained.

“The smart application of drip irrigation will allow farmers to grow a much wider variety of crops throughout the year. This allows farmers to break free from being totally dependent on a single harvest for their yearly income and food,” said Carl Larkins, who leads this Feed the Future project in Malawi.

Irrigation is not new in Malawi, but drip irrigation is. Malawi largely relies on canal-fed sprinklers and labor intensive pumps for irrigation. Both rely on huge volumes of water, which farmers have found hard to sustain in times of poor rains.

In contrast, drip irrigation applies water to individual plants in small, frequent quantities through a network of perforated plastic pipes. The technology uses 35-50 percent less water than other types of irrigation.

Drip irrigation is an essential missing piece in achieving food security in Malawi and Feed the Future is introducing  it across the agricultural sector. The activities at Horizon Farm are just a hint of things to come.

Already, the technology has generated excitement. Other organizations that work in agriculture are in the process of procuring their own drip kits. Businesses looking to maximize land productivity and NGOs seeking to successfully support their communities through sustainable agriculture are increasingly interested in using drip irrigation as a cost-effective way for improving agricultural productivity.

The Government of Malawi, which encourages the adoption of proven and safe technologies with the potential to boost production in the agricultural sector, is supporting the spread of drip irrigation by providing technical expertise through its extension service network.

“We envision a situation where drip irrigation will now be widely adopted and become a common sight in the country to address food insecurity,” Larkins said. The project is setting up 10 demonstration sites with anchor farms like Horizon Farms, which reaches more than 2,000 farming families alone, to share drip irrigation with even more farmers in Malawi.

The Feed the Future Malawi Agriculture Diversification Activity, funded by USAID and implemented by Palladium, aims to sustainably reduce poverty, hunger and malnutrition among 150,000 smallholder farmers in Malawi by building robust market linkages and improved agricultural productivity.