Using nature-based water storage for smallholder irrigated agriculture in African drylands: Lessons from frugal innovation pilots in Mozambique and Zimbabwe

A. Duker*, C. Cambaza, P. Saveca, S. Ponguane, T. A. Mawoyo, M. Hulshof, L. Nkomo, S. Hussey, P. van der Zaag, More Authors

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
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Alluvial aquifers in seasonal rivers are a yet underutilised resource in many (semi-)arid regions of Africa. These so-called sand river aquifers provide nature-based water storage within easy reach because they are shallow. They form a significant potential renewable source of water for irrigation development. Innovative approaches and solutions are needed to sustainably increase productive use of this resource to enhance rural livelihoods. The A4Labs action research explores the potential and pitfalls of introducing solutions designed for individual smallholder farmers. This entails innovation in three domains: the technology used (manually-installed shallow well-points in or next to a sand river combined with solar-powered water pumps), the arrangement (individual smallholder farmers), and the purpose (market-oriented farming). Pilots were established in the Limpopo river basin in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Monitoring and assessment are ongoing, but preliminary findings indicate that successful adoption of the approach was not constrained by water availability. Despite the fact that these pilots were established during two subsequent drought years, there was no difficulty in accessing freshwater in sufficient quantity. Instead, successful adoption depends on previous farming experience, market access, and the possibility to grow adaptively in terms of technology, scale and financial risks. In addition, establishing an individual farm to grow cash crops requires acceptance and new skills, as irrigation for smallholder farmers in Africa has traditionally been framed as a communal activity in “collective” irrigation schemes with strong support by outside agencies, and with the well-known collective action challenges. This action research has also estimated that the potential for upscaling this innovation in the Limpopo river basin is significant. Our innovative solution for accessing water stored in shallow alluvial aquifers can start small, is within reach of smallholder farmers (initial investment being less than US$1,000/0.2 ha), and is scalable as farmers can gradually improve their system and expand. Moreover, the solution allows for the application of “adaptive development pathways” at the river-stretch scale.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-6
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Africa
  • Farmer-Led irrigation
  • Frugal innovation
  • Sand river aquifers
  • Solar-Powered irrigation development


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