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Irrigation is only viable for high value crops - Lessons from Kenya

Farm Irrigation systems are expensive to acquire and to run, they are only viable for high value crops. Lessons in Kenya.
Photo credit: AusQuest farm Athi River

Irrigation is only for high-value crops

Farm Irrigation systems are expensive to acquire and to run, they are only viable for high value crops. 

Kenya’s agriculture is principally rain-fed with only less than 1% of land under irrigation. According to FAO, the total arable land in Kenya is close to 6 million hectares, translating to only 60,000 hectares under irrigation. In my thinking, I estimate that the area under irrigation could be even less if you separate the centrally managed rice irrigation schemes which account for 20% of irrigated land in Kenya. 

There is a general understanding across the globe that adopting new technologies such as mechanization, irrigation, biotechnology etc is fundamental to achieving agricultural growth with optimum yield. And in Kenya, the desire by the government to push for adoption of these technologies has been met with mixed reactions. 

New technologies have not been very much welcome especially in factories where tea picking machines have led to serious demonstration on the streets by workers who were rendered jobless. While mechanization is imperative to the sector, it must be developed hand in hand with industrialization. This prepares the economy to absorb workers who are replaced from the farm by machines.

Talking about irrigation, are we ready for profitable irrigation farming? In Kenya, Irrigation has always been seen as an intervention marred with political interference, and most irrigation projects in the country have been used to gain political mileage by some individuals. This partially explains why none of the centrally-managed public irrigation schemes has ever achieved sustainability, for example Galana Kulalu project.

In addition to political manipulation in irrigation development, there is another fundamental problem that I want to clarify in this article, and this is the concept of “economically viable crop for irrigation”. Apart from rice that only grows under irrigation, a lot of other crops that we have been irrigating in our major government projects do not make economic sense. 

For example,  there is no viable business in irrigating grain crops such as maize, wheat, legumes, etc especially given that Kenya’s climatic conditions can allow such crops to grow under rain-fed fields. Actually, 10% of Kenya's land is classified as first-class land. This means that the decision to invest in Galana  Kulalu project to irrigate maize was a badly misinformed idea! The best ideas in Galana project were never implemented, that is horticulture, fruits, and dairy. Nonetheless, there are a few circumstances where irrigating maize can make sense (though not economic sense):

  • When a country is focused on achieving self-sufficiency in food supply,
  • When the natural climate does not allow the crop to grow, implying opportunity cost analysis between irrigation and importing.
In my view, Kenya has not been constrained by any of the above circumstances and hence there was no rational to invest in irrigation projects for grain crops. If Kenya is still interested in producing more maize locally,  the climate offers beyond optimum growing conditions and hence the government must invest in researching how to capitalize on the excellent climatic conditions instead of diverting to irrigation.

But my argument above does not mean that I completely disregard the importance of developing irrigation in Kenya. What everyone needs to understand is that you lose money by irrigating maize, yield notwithstanding.

What Kenya can do  to make farm irrigation a viable business 

However, there are ways in which Kenya can prepare itself to develop a viable irrigated farming, and this can start by introducing high value crops that make economic sense if irrigated. Setting up and maintaining a large-scale irrigation system requires high capital investment. Therefore, high return on investment can be achieved only if high value crops are grown under irrigation. This is the case worldwide where priority crops for irrigation have always been fruits, horticultural produce, vegetables, fodder crops, etc. Most of these crops earn high value especially after value addition and export.

So, if Kenya embraces production and value addition of such high-value crop the country can reap the true benefit of irrigation farming. Till then, I can say that Kenya is not yet ready for profitable irrigation farming.
However, Kenya can do the following to speed up preparedness for adoption of profitable irrigation:
  • Develop varieties of high value crops that can perform well on Kenyan soils,
  • Develop processing factories for value addition of such crops,
  • Advocate for local consumption of such products to create local market.
If this happens, every drop used in irrigation will count, economically!

Joseph Wambugu is a consultant on Agribusiness
Follow him on LinkedIn


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nice read. Valid ideas very well written. I enjoyed reading it.

    I would love to hear your opinion on what we can do to achieve widespread and cheaper irrigation capabilities especially among smallholder farmers in Kenya. Is it a priority in the race towards improving farm productivity, or should we rather focus on availing inputs such as fertilizers?

    What can we do to make that small farm more productive and hence graduate farmers from the vicious cycle of poverty?

    Maybe you could consider addressing that in one of your posts.

  3. Thank Karanja for your insightful feedback. In fact you've just given me a new idea for my next article.

    Replying to your question, irrigation is a critical technology if we want experience green revolution in Kenya. However its important to remember that irrigation is an ALTERNATIVE to insufficient rainfall. So smallholder farmers should adopt it selectively depending on what they intend to grow, and where....etc

  4. Hi Joseph! it's great to see your thread on the decision factors concerning irrigation and high yielding crops as a direct result of the right amount of water.
    i hope to see you soon. Br, D

  5. Why is it not profitable to irrigate maize or wheat and why is it profitable to irrigate rice can you explain a bit sir thanks in advanced I want to go in large scale farming hence my question have seen sub surface drip irrigation for corn and thought was okay asante sans


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