What irrigation options are there for smallholder farmers?

What is irrigation?

Irrigation is the process of watering your crops in a controlled way. Instead of relying on increasingly unreliable rainfall, irrigation means you can tailor the amount of water you use and when, by what each crop needs to grow best. 

How does irrigation benefit smallholders?

Irrigation has many benefits for smallholder farmers!

By giving your crops the correct amount of water, you will be improving their growing conditions. Too much water can cause stunted plant growth as soil that is waterlogged reduces oxygen getting to the roots, and too little water means your crops will dry up.

Irrigation can also reduce water loss on your farm, making it an efficient way to water your crops. You control how much water you use and you can choose to irrigate in cooler periods of the day when the sun is not as strong, reducing evaporation. You can also reduce evaporation by choosing irrigation methods that give smaller, steady amounts of water to your plants.

Lots of irrigation methods can be set up and left to irrigate your crops, meaning less labour for you and more time to get other things done.

This is why irrigation has been widely seen to increase the quality and yield of crops!

Another big benefit of irrigation is not having to wait for the rains, with a water source near your farm you can keep growing crops all year round.

What types of irrigation are there?

There are many different ways to irrigate on your farm, and what you choose will depend on your crops, soil, budget and water source.

Irrigation methods range from the simple and easy, to those requiring the purchase of specialised equipment. Below, we have highlighted some of the main irrigation types we see on smallholder farms:

Sprinkler irrigation
Sprinkler irrigation – 3 to 4 sprinklers are optimum for the Futurepump SF2 solar pump

SPRINKLERS

One of the most popular types of irrigation we see on smallholder farms. They are affordable and very easy to use.

Sprinklers are attached to sections of hose pipe with connectors and water is supplied by either a water pump or water tank. They are moved around the farm to evenly water all the crops.

Water droplets are ‘rained’ down in circles from sprinklers, so a lot of ground can be covered. However, as water is sent from a height to a wider area, it is not as efficient as other types of irrigation.

Sprinklers can be left to irrigate your crops until they need to be moved or stopped, giving you more time to do other things such as farm work or a well-deserved rest.

Drip line irrigating new crops
Drip line irrigating new crops

DRIP

We are seeing more and more drip irrigation used on smallholder farms and there is a good reason why – it is one of the most efficient ways to irrigate your crops!

It is called drip as this method uses hose pipes with small holes or nozzles along it to drip feed water to the base of your plants. These are known as drip lines and are laid along where your crops are planted. Water is usually supplied to the drip lines from tanks, using gravity to power the slow flow of the water. Water pumps are used to get water into the water tanks.

Drip is very efficient as water is slowly given to the base of your plants throughout the day, reducing over-watering, evaporation and water loss. It also allows you to do other things as you can leave it to irrigate (how about another rest!)

However, drip irrigation can be difficult to move around your farm and does require the purchase of drip lines, a water tank and potentially other equipment, which makes it a more expensive option.

Home-made mist irrigation
Home-made mist irrigation

MIST

Mist is less common on smallholder farms.

Mist irrigation works by spraying a fine ‘mist’ of water onto your crops. It is similar in a way to drip, in that water is put through small holes or nozzles but at a higher pressure. This allows you to water quicker and a wider area, but it is less efficient.

Again, mist can be left to irrigate while you do other things but it also requires the purchase of equipment, such as a water tank or water pump, so it has higher start-up costs.

Manual irrigation of crops during the dry season
Manual irrigation of crops during the dry season

MANUAL

Manual irrigation is by far the most common form of irrigation as anyone physically able to, can manually irrigate their crops.

Manual irrigation is you moving water from plant to plant. This is very labour and time intensive and is usually done with a hose or bucket, so it is only suitable for smaller areas.

These ways are also the least efficient as you have less control over the water, and it is usually delivered in larger quantities that are not as good for the plant and can increase run-off from your farm.

However, this is financially the cheapest way to irrigate your farm and it is currently the only easily available option for many smallholders, especially in dry seasons.

Flooding the soil

FURROW OR FLOOD

This is the practice of flooding the soil around your plants, sometimes using furrows (troughs) between raised ridges where your plants grow.

This type of irrigation needs large amounts of water, usually supplied with a water pump. Also, you will need to plan and plant your crops with ridges and furrows.

It is quite an inefficient way to irrigate, as pools of water will evaporate easily, especially in warm, sunny conditions. Plus with the large volumes of water you could lose some from your farm in run-off.


Quick Irrigation Overview:

Irrigation TypeAdvantagesDisadvantages
1. SprinklersRelatively cheap
Easy to set up and use
Not labour intensive
Can cover a large area
Not the most efficient
Need to buy sprinklers
2. DripVery efficient
Direct, gentle irrigation
Not labour intensive
Can cover a large area
Expensive start-up costs
More difficult set up
3. MistEfficient
Not labour intensive
Can cover a large area
Expensive start-up costs
More difficult to set up
4. ManualCheapest option
Easy access
Labour intensive
Time consuming
Not suitable for large areas
Less efficient
5. Furrow / Flood Not expensive
Easy access
Can cover a large area
Less efficient

How can Futurepump help you irrigate?

The Futurepump SF2 water pump getting water from an underground tank to crops during the dry season

Futurepump make solar water pumps that help you quickly and easily move water from your water source to irrigate your crops. All the above photos showing the irrigation types have the water being supplied by the Futurepump SF2 solar pump!

By using solar to power the water pump there are no fuel costs and no harmful pollutants on your farm. Solar powered irrigation keeps things as sustainable and as efficient as possible. Other ways to get water for irrigation include manually move the water which is time consuming and tiresome, or using fossil fuel pumps which are costly, very inefficient and polluting.

If you would like more details on this, handily, we have a recent blog that provides a lot more details on water pumps for irrigation!

Our solar water pumps can be used with all the irrigation types shown in this blog and our distributors will be able to help you find what is right for you.