Call for papers

Farmer-led irrigation development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Investment, policy engagements & agrarian transformation

Guest editors: Gert Jan Veldwisch, Hans Komakech, Jean-Philippe Venot

Debates about irrigating sub-Saharan Africa are not new but have re-emerged at the start of the century (World Bank, 2006; AfDB et al. 2008; Lankford, 2009; AgWa 2010) following renewed concerns over stagnant African agricultural productivity (NEPAD 2003; Commission for Africa, 2005; World Bank, 2008) and the 2007-8 increase in food commodity prices. Key to the debate is “the form that irrigation must take” in sub-Saharan Africa given mounting evidence that past irrigation development has fared much below expectations on a variety of criteria (Svendsen et al., 2009; Inocencio et al. 2007; Woodhouse, 2012). In this context, the idea that smallholders can be a driving force of irrigation development has started to get some traction as illustrated by the 2018 international water for food forum organized by the Daugherty Global Institute and the World Bank and entitled Farmer-led irrigated agriculture: Seeds of opportunity.

Farmer-led irrigation might well be on its way to become “a new investment model” promoted by major development players in conjunction with national governments. This interest partly builds on a growing number of empirical studies that have documented an intensification and expansion of agricultural water management, often by small-scale producers using a variety of technologies and often in circumstances where legal and regulatory frameworks have not been developed to address such patterns of water use and agricultural development (de Fraiture and Giordano, 2013; Veldwisch et al., 2013; Woodhouse et al., 2017). However, the debate has remained largely framed in dual terms whereby farmer-led irrigated agriculture (often characterized as small scale) is often opposed to investments (often thought to be of a larger scale) by the state and private companies with or without support of development aid agencies and NGOs.

In this special issue, we take a slightly different view. Instead of framing farmer-led irrigation as another (neatly) bounded and fixed irrigation category we focus on farmer-led irrigation development (FLID). We define farmer-led irrigation development as a process in which farmers drive the establishment, improvement and/or expansion of irrigated agriculture, often in interaction with other actors: government agencies, NGOs, etc. This type of irrigation development cuts across existing irrigation typologies defined on the basis of scale, technologies, crops, modes of management, etc. It has become a reality of rural sub-Saharan landscapes: it is widespread and increasing and embedded in institutional and governance arrangements that are situation specific. This special issue aims at shedding light on the multiplicity of farmer-led irrigation development by tackling questions that include but are not limited to:

  • The “knowledge dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. How to assess its extent: what tools and methods can be used to map and share information on these dynamics? What can they reveal, what do they miss? What are the political consequences of generating new knowledge and data on farmer-led irrigation development on these very processes?
  • The “governance dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. How do different stakeholders (researchers, NGOs, Government agencies, private companies, and aid agencies) perceive, frame and then engage with FLID? In which multi-level governance arrangements are FLID embedded in?
  • The “policy dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. How does farmer-led irrigation development feature in national and continental plans to enhance agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa? Notably, how does FLID relate to initiatives promoting large scale agricultural entrepreneurship (for instance growth pole, growth corridors, and outgrowers’ schemes, etc)?
  • The “institutional dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. What institutional arrangements emerge and underpin FLID, what are the property rights and land tenure regimes associated with such dynamics, what strategies farmers adopt to engage with different “external” actors, for what purposes?
  • The “water dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. What is the water use efficiency of FLID at scales (local, system, watershed), what possible water allocation trade-offs it implies, and what environmental effects in a local and river basin perspectives, etc?
  • The “agricultural and social dimensions” of farmer-led irrigation development. How productive is FLID? What investment processes underpins it? Does it lead to widespread poverty alleviation and prosperity? Does it create new inequalities across class, gender and generational gaps?

For this special issue we are looking for contributions that start from empirical work (single and/or comparative case studies) to draw broader analytical and/or theoretical arguments on what farmer-led irrigation development tells us about the discourses, policies and practices of irrigation development, agricultural intensification and water resources management in sub-Saharan Africa. Contributions may be grounded in a variety of fields and disciplines ranging from agricultural and irrigation/water engineering, to economics, physical and human geography, anthropology, sociology, political ecology and policy science. They should however shed light on the politics related to knowing and characterizing farmer-led irrigation development.

We are calling for long abstracts (1000 to 1500 words) that should briefly present the analytical framework, the methodology used, the main lessons of the case study/ies, and stress the main (analytical) arguments put forth in the paper.

Send your abstracts to: and, with copy to

Standard review process will apply: upon selection of the abstracts, submitted papers will be sent to two external reviewers chosen by the guest editors together with the editors of Water Alternatives. Guest editors will be responsible for the final decision of accepting papers on the basis of reviews received from the reviewers and the editors of Water Alternatives (see to format your contribution).

Time line

Launch of the call                                                                20 February 2018

Deadline for submission of abstracts (1000-1500 words)  15 March 2018

Notification of authors                                                         15 April 2018

Submission of selected papers                                           15 July 2018

Reviews sent back to authors                                             30 October 2018

Submission of revised papers                                             15 December 2019

Publication                                                                           1 February 2019

Key references

AfDB et al 2008. Investment In Agricultural Water for Poverty Reduction and Economic Growth. A collaborative Program of AFDB, FAO,IFAD, IWMI and the World Bank. Synthesis Report

AgWA. 2010. AgWA governance, institutional and operational architecture. Agricultural Water for Africa.

De Fraiture, C. and Giordano, M. 2013. Small private irrigation: A thriving but overlooked sector. Agricultural Water Management 131: 167-174.

Lankford, B., 2009. Viewpoint—the right irrigation? Policy directions for agricultural water management in sub-Saharan Africa. Water Alternatives 2 (3), 476–480.

Merrey, D. 2018. Pathways to Increasing Farmer-led Investments in Sustainable Agricultural Water Management in sub-Saharan Africa. Background paper for the recent World Bank-USAID-DWFI conference on farmer-led irrigation development in Africa.

NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). 2003. Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program. Pretoria, South Africa: NEPAD.

Svendsen, S., Ewing, M., Msangi, S., 2009. Measuring irrigation performance in Africa. IFPRI Discussion Paper 894. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.

Veldwisch, G.J.; Beekman, W. and Bolding, A. 2013. Smallholder irrigators, water rights and investments in agriculture: Three cases from rural Mozambique. Water Alternatives 6(1): 125-141.

Woodhouse, P. 2012. “Water in African Agronomy.” In Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World, edited by J Sumberg and J Thompson, 102–15. London: Earthscan.

Woodhouse, Philip, Gert Jan Veldwisch, Jean-Philippe Venot, Dan Brockington, Hans Komakech, and Ângela Manjichi. 2017. “African Farmer-Led Irrigation Development: Re-Framing Agricultural Policy and Investment?” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44 (1):213–33.

World Bank. 2006. Reengaging in agricultural water management: Challenges and Options. Washington D.C: The World Bank.

World Bank. 2007. World Development Report 2008. Washington, DC: The World Bank.