For Uganda, irrigation missing link to fighting hunger

Jan 14th, 2010 | By | Category: The African Connection

Editor’s Note: The following story is from one of our African contributing reporters, re-posted with the permission of the writer. As part of this project, we are striving to build relationships with and promote the work of fellow journalists with experience covering agricultural issues on the continent. This is how we are trying to collaboratively produce news about Africa from the perspective of Africans. We hope to continue this effort for the remainder of the project.


The whoosh of the water as it left the water pipes onto the green leaves of the coffee seedlings could be heard for quite some distance. As the water pipes ran in the adjacent coffee gardens, the farm owner, Ssebatta Musisi, shook his head with satisfaction.

His farm is the pride of his village. The farm is located in Kyoko village, Kingo sub-county, Masaka district, 160 kilometers (94 miles) from Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

In the district, he is recognized as a lead farmer. Ssebatta’s water tank, which is underground is not so advanced, can effectively help him grow his crops throughout the year.

“I have over 90,000 liters in these tanks,” he said. “I will add another 90,000 liters in the near future because I have realized how important irrigation is.”


Ssebbatta pointing at one of his water reservoirs at the farm

Ssebatta is one of very few farmers in Uganda practicing irrigation in farming. Although there is agreement that irrigation does ensure food security, it has yet to be adopted as part of the overall agricultural industry in Uganda.

In all, fewer than 1 percent of the ordinary farming population use irrigation on their farms. Overall, 5 percent of commercial farmers use irrigation. However, these are established plantations like Kakira, Kinyara sugar growers, Kibimba rice scheme, Doho irrigation scheme, the flower growers in Wakiso and Mukono and a few others. The rest of the population depends on rain for agriculture.

According to the 2009 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) report, produced by the U.N.’s Conference on Trade and Development, lack of water has increasingly led to a drop in food production in countries like Uganda.

“There are major challenges for sustainable food production in LDCs where water shortages affect both human and livestock consumption and where potential for small scale irrigation and water harvesting is limited,” the report states.
“We are suffering from famine and hunger at the moment because we have failed to adopt the power of irrigation,” said Ugandan Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya.

Bukenya, also a big farmer, recently adopted irrigation on his farm and has never looked back. Bukenya`s model farm is located near Kakiri town, 45 kilometers from Kampala city. He explained that with irrigation, maize would be in plentiful supply all year ’round.

“Can you imagine that this maize is blossoming irrespective of rainfall?” he asked as he walked around his maize shamba. Bukenya said that even without the artificial water reservoirs, the country has got enough water sources to practice irrigation.

According to Bukenya, one of the reasons Ugandans have not adopted full-scale irrigation is that the rains have been relatively good throughout the years. “In Uganda, we normally have two rainy seasons, one running from March to May and another running from October to December,” Bukenya explained.

However, climate change has affected these seasons. Rains have become more unpredictable across the country. In fact, parts of Teso and Karamoja did not receive enough rains in the March-May season, hence the recent drought and famine. “This is the very reason we should start irrigating our crops. We should do more to harvest the rain water when it comes and use it later when the rains stop. We should also make good use of the water bodies in our midst,” Bukenya said.

Lots of water sources

There is no limit in the potential for irrigation in Uganda. The country is gifted with lots of water sources that if there was a concerted effort to irrigate, there should be no shortage of water sources. In the east of the country, where the most severe famine occurred mid this year, there is a water source almost after every 5 kilometers. For example, for Kumi and Soroti, the wide River Awoja can be used as a big water source. There are also small rivers between Soroti and Kaberamaido, and from Kaberamaido to Lira.

“With all these water bodies amidst us, it is a shame that we can even cry of famine and hunger when Egypt with only river Nile practices agriculture throughout the year,” lamented Soroti district chairman Stephen Ochola.

Overall, 11 districts share Lake Kyoga in the Teso and Lango regions, but no farmers use the lake waters for farming-related activities.

In West-Nile, the River Nile that passes through should be a big water source for irrigation. Ironically, the same river is effectively used by both Egypt and Sudan to grow crops all year ’round. However, there is no single irrigation pipe running from the river to a farm on the Ugandan side. And yet, in the central region, there are rivers scattered around.

In Nakaseke, Kiboga and Hoima, the River Kafu and River Mayanja confluences can be a good source of water. There is also River Katonga in the Masaka, Mpigi and Sembabule region, as well as a host of man-made lakes like Kijjanabalola in Rakai and Kakinga in Ntusi- Ssembabule. Kayunga can use rivers Ssezibwa and Musamya. However, farmers who had recently started growing maize along the River Musamya were stopped by NEMA, because they were “polluting” the river.

In the west, there are rivers like Rwizi, lakes like Mburo, George and Edward from which water for irrigation can be drawn.

Outside the water bodies, there is also an opportunity to harvest water from the regular rains across the country. When the floods hit Teso region in 2007, some of the waters would have been harvested if the community had a concrete water harvesting system. Instead, all of it went to waste as the farmers lamented.

“It should not be the case this time round,” Water Minister Maria Mutagamba said after weather predictions pointed at another heavy rainy season. “We should be able to trap some of this water and use it when the rains have stopped.”

But again, no concrete plans were put in place to trap the flood waters. The State for Agriculture Minister Aggrey Bagiire is also aware of the potential of irrigation in Teso.  “These streams can be adopted for irrigation with proper planning. That is what we are aiming at,” Bagiire said during a recent visit to Teso.

In his end of year address, however, President Yoweri Museveni directed the ministry of agriculture to emphasize low-cost irrigation systems in the next financial year.

Experiences of those who have the system

Uganda’s Vice President Professor Gilbert Bukenya is one of the people practicing farm irrigation. “With irrigation, we can practice agriculture 12 months a year,” Bukenya said as he supervised the irrigation of his one-acre vegetable farm. “Water is power and we as a country are gifted with so many water sources.”

He had every reason to be excited about this. His vegetables are green and blossoming as if this is the middle of the rainy season.

The vice president said that seasonal crops like the highly valuable vegetables can be grown year ’round with the power of irrigation. At his Kakiri farm, he has got some of the best vegetables growing anywhere in the country. They include cabbages that can weigh up to 2 kilograms, garlic, sukumawiki, carrots, lactus, chickpeas, okra and others.
“I grow these vegetables all year ’round because I have got this scheme here,” he said. Vegetables have got a very big market not only in the city but also in the Middle East. “If areas surrounding Kampala, for example Wakiso, Mukono and Luwero are able to produce vegetables all year ’round, then they can easily capture the city market. Bukenya said that he earns at least  4 million Ugandan shillings (US $2,105) after every three months from vegetables, which he grows through irrigation.

In the swamps between Gayaza-Zirobwe-Bamunanika, farmers mainly produce vegetables, but only during times when the rains permit. And yet, they could use the various streams running through their midst to grow vegetables all year ’round.

One of the vegetable farmers in Buwambo who has adopted the power of water is Edward Muwanga. “When I took up vegetable farming as a full time job, I decided that I should do it full time, but that was not possible because of the unpredictable rainy seasons,” he said.

Muwanga then decided to start using the water in the stream near his farm. “I bought three watering cans at 20,000 Ugandan shilling (about US $10) each and started watering the vegetables. I do it in the morning and in the afternoon when there are no rains,” he said. He now produces all year ’round.

In Nkuke village, Buwunga sub-county, Masaka district, water hoses, the length of two football pitches are lined up between rows of fine pineapple plants. The farm belongs to Erias Luzinda, a consultant accountant. “We pump the water from the valley,” said Rogers Akugirizibwe, the farm manager. The collection water tanks can store as much as 270,000 liters of water.

Luzinda might have invested over 200 million Ugandan shillings (US $105,263) in the irrigation system alone, certainly beyond the reach of ordinary Ugandan farmers. However, it helps him grow quality food and fruits all the time, including maize. “We have maize here all year round because we are practicing irrigation,” Akugirizibwe said.

Ssebatta’s is one of the cheap systems that can be adopted by every other moderate farmer. He dug a pit with a capacity of 80,000 liters. The walls of the pit are lined with tough tarpaulin, which prevents the water from seeping into the soils. During rainy seasons, the tunnels direct rainwater into the pit.

“I draw out that water during droughts and use it on my coffee seedlings,” he said. Ssebata said that farmers should not be afraid of adopting the system because they can afford it. “Any farmer who wants to adopt my system can visit me, or call me on 07-72-333-303 and I will assist them harvest water cheaply,” he said.


Bukenya admitted that starting irrigation systems across the country is a very expensive venture. However, he said, it is tenable.

The vice president’s irrigation system cost him around 16 million Ugandan shillings (US $8,421). This is certainly not in the range of an average farmer. He spent 6 million Ugandan shillings (US $3,157) to create a water reservoir, which is a tank, and 10 million Ugandan shillings (US $5,263) to buy the other implements. These include nozzles for off-ground sprinkling of water and pipes that take the water around the farm. However, he said, the best system is using drip pipes. These pipes are laid in between the plants and during irrigation, allowing water to directly go to the plant.

The government said that it is not capable of giving an irrigation system to every farmer across the country. However, according to Bukenya, government should be able to offer subsidies to farmers.  “For example, if a farmer buys a water pump for irrigation purposes, it should not only be tax free, but even the fuel that he uses should be reduced,” he said.

He also explained that pipes that act as water conduits are also expensive for the common farmer and should be subsidized. “Overall, farmers should also realize that the investment in an irrigation scheme might look big at the beginning, but because it will help you produce crops throughout the year, this money is quickly recovered,” he added.
However, there are cheaper alternatives. Take the example of the Wonder Water Pump.  The pump, which goes for 250,000 Ugandan shillings (US $150), is relatively affordable to medium-size farmers across the country. It is a foot operated, two cylinder, high performance equipment. “A farmer can move it from one corner of the farm to the other without any problems because it is light,” said Abdul Mugambe, an irrigation systems trainer.

Cheap and easy-to-use Wonder pump

Cheap and easy-to-use Wonder pump

Adoption of the Money Maker system is still low in Uganda. In Kenya, more than 6,000 small-scale farmers have adopted the Money Maker irrigation system in the last few years. While some of the current systems use motors and fuel, this one depends on human energy. Even a ten year old child can operate it effectively. No wonder the system is referred to as “a simple pump that could be the solution for millions of farmers in the country who cannot afford large irrigation systems.”

The pump can be operated from any source of water. The water can be harvested and stored in under ground tanks. A horse pipe attached to the pump is dropped in the water source while another longer pipe, also attached to the pump with a stand at the end, is placed in a section of the farm that a farmer wants to irrigate. Then, the farmer starts moving his feet on the pedals. “The pressure can push water through 200 meters if the ground is flat,” Mugambe said.

The pump is capable of irrigating at least two acres of land per day. This is the size of two football pitches. The fact that the pump is mobile means that two farmers or even more from the same area can pool funds, buy one pump and share it out.

However, according to Mugambe, adoption of this pump by farmers has been low. He thinks that the government should come in and help farmers acquire this water pump, just like they are doing with the acquisition of walking tractors for farmers.

Given the changing trends of the climate, which is likely to bring even more unpredictable rains, there is no way Ugandan farmers will survive without adopting irrigation because, in the words of Vice President Bukenya, “That is where the future of agriculture lies.”

*1 USD= 1,900 Ugandan shillings

Joshua Kato writes on agriculture issues in Kampala for New Vision, the leading daily in Uganda.

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