This is an archival version of the original KnowledgePoint website.

Interactive features have been disabled and some pages and links have been removed.

Visit the new KnowledgePoint website at


micro irrigation

Neil Noble

Hi all, Do any of you know how well micro-irrigation / drip irrigation works. I know Practical Action has done this is quite a few places but is it sustained by farmers on a long term basis?

You should be careful about pushing this technology for small farmers--the literature is very clear that poor smallholders never use them over the long term. The sources used in this document are way out of date.

6 Answers


While drip irrigation is a very good technology in the right hands, experience with small holder farmers in a number of countries in southern and eastern Africa is not encouraging. If they are for use by entrepreneurial well educated farmers in a water scarce area then it will probably work. Drip irrigation can be done on two basic scales, a "conventional" system involving an installation over a relatively large area. This is a high tech approach to irrigation involving pumps, sophisticated filtration equipment and fertigation with liquid fertiliser. It is appropriate for commercial scale farms. Some attempts have been made to use these schemes with groups of smallholder farmers but the capital costs are high and the operation costs and maintenance requirements make them more prone to failure than other group managed schemes.

On a more individual level drip kits are available are available at various scales up yo around 500m2. These are often promoted by NGOs as a good technology for poor smallholder farmers. Again in the right circumstances they can work but often don't. The cost is still relatively high as they require a header tank, conveyance pipes and drip lines. In most circumstances they also need some form of pump to get the water from a nearby source into the header tank. I have seen a set up where a farmer was expected to collect water from a river, carry it uphill past his crops in a bucket and then lift the bucket over his head to fill the tank. Of course it was not long before he decided it was easier to pour the water directly onto the crops. I have also heard of farmers being unsatisfied with the slightly damp patch on the ground and feel that the plants are not getting enough water. So after watering using the drip kit they come along and add further water with a watering can. This may have come from work done by Doug Merrey at IWMI.

Apart from the high capital cost, some drip kits have a limited life-span. The cheaper ones with lay-flat plastic dripper pipes are easily damaged and being chewed by rats is a common problem. More robust pipes exist but the cost goes up. I have heard of a life-span of 5 years or less so if the technology is going to be introduced in an area a supply chain of spare parts at affordable cost must also be there.

The water may emerge from a simple hole in the pipe or a more complex emitter. These are prone to blockage with silt if the water is not properly filtered or salts precipitating from brackish water which adds another maintenance requirement.

Micro-jet irrigation uses what are in effect mini sprinklers. They have similar advantages (water saving) and disadvantages (see above) to drip irrigation and probably require slightly higher water pressure.

Mary Allen
Practical Action
Neil Noble

Hi Neil

In West Africa drip irrigation has been disseminated in particular by iDE working in partnership with Winrock and others. I no longer have any contacts working in either organisation but they do have a UK office which might point you towards the right person to advise you

I note that they are currently working only in Burkina Faso in West Africa “Despite its location at the edge of the Sahel the potential for small-scale irrigated agriculture in Burkina Faso is huge. iDE started work in 2011 to create sustainable supply chain for drip irrigation kits and other irrigation technologies, and have already facilitated the sale over 4,000 drip kits to date. The impact has been immediate – by enabling farmers to plant up to three crop cycles a year – agricultural production has significantly improved.”

Burkina Faso Tech Center

Pasted from On June 12, iDE’s newest country program celebrated an important milestone. iDE’s Burkina Faso team was joined by esteemed delegates from the Burkina Faso Ministry of Agriculture at a ceremony to observe the first harvest at the Center of Technology at Yamtenga. Speakers included several key iDE Burkina Faso staff, as well as Abdoulaye Compari from the Ministry of Agriculture, and Paul Bayili, who spoke on behalf of SDC on the importance of the partnership to advancing drip irrigation in the country. The event was attended by representatives of key partners including SDC, AFD, CIDA, GIZ, JICA, UNICEF, Swedish Corporation, FAO, WFP and IFAD. Various NGOs including Self-Help Africa, ACDI/VOCA, SNV, PlanetFinance, and HKI helped us to mark the occasion.

iDE Burkina Country Director Laurent Stravato discussed the organization’s efforts to implement low-cost drip irrigation technologies in a region with severely limited water resources, setting forth three issues which iDE has been working on in Burkina Faso: scaling up drip irrigation in the region, developing innovations to make it more affordable to Burkinabé farmers, and iDE Burkina’s distribution model and the advisory role of twelve farm business advisors currently working in four provinces of the country: Boulkiemdé, Kadiogo, Sanguié, and Yatenga. Ms. Aida Ganaba, head of iDE’s Technology Center, explained in detail the work being done with drip irrigation kits of varying sizes as well various innovative prototypes being tested at the Center, such as a 1000-liter, ferro-cement reservoir, a 150 liter clay jar constructed by local masons, and a wood support system housing a 1,000 liter tank, created by an iDE farm business advisor. iDE Burkina’s Center of Technology was created to serve as a facility where affordable water technologies could be developed, tested, and demonstrated to local farmers. The team faced many challenges in getting the center underway, including poor soil quality, the 400 meter distance from the nearest water source, abundance of plant disease, and a need for system uniformity. Addressing these problems, which are shared by ... (more)


Doug Merrey commented on the Practical Action website

There is a growing literature on the actual experiences of smallholders in Africa with drip irrigation kits. This reply format makes it difficult to cite them. For a review of some of the literature go to the IWMI website [ ] and look for Working Paper 162 by Merrey and Langan. There are references there --and the conclusion is very clear this is not an appropriate technology for most smallholders.


Another option for micro-scale irrigation is to use a a bed and furrow system, using 50mm plastic pipes to convey the water from the source (using a small tank, old oil drum? filled with a pump (rope washer or other ... even by bucket). I adapted this very slightly from what farmers were already doing successfully in Zimbabwe. Key thing is to promote a rotation (weekly or even fortnightly if crops more deeply rooted) and a thorough wetting of the soil down to 30-50cm, avoiding regular sprinkling (disease, shallow rooting and high evaporative losses). Mulching on bed can help further reduce evap losses. Pipes and pump can be carried home and stored securely.


I can agree totally with what Martinager posted.

My experience is in north east asia, working more specifically with greenhouse systems. In most cases if the farmers were left to their own devices they would simply ignore the drip system (we provided full instruction in the local language, but I guess the system is just too foreign). If we helped them setup the system and showed the how it works, uptake was much better - but unfortunately I would have to ask my colleagues whether this was sustained over the longer term. Some of these places experienced severe water scarcity.

I think for most people in most situations, to make it work would require a good amount of hands on training and guidance to get the system setup and running, and then frequent refresher training and troubleshooting sessions - probably at least twice a year.


Micro-irrigation in a new location, in a new community, with new users, in a new context, is not an easy concept to introduce and take hold. Cultural, technical, economic, value proposition, lack of new idea adoption experience, lack of plant growth science knowledge, lack of soil knowledge, operational barriers, all get in the way fast. And the project fails to take hold.

To have micro-irrigation be accepted in such scenarios one has to follow a process of education, familiarization, proof of success and proof of economic benefit. One has to wait for the success of "early adopters" in order to be able to see the "farmer community at large" accept, adopt and be enthusiastic about this new way of giving water to plants. All this takes much longer to implement than most outside agents are prepared to spend on any project.

Micro-irrigation brings a lot of new and unknown components to the farmer, it is not foolproof, and neither is it the only contributor to crop success. It has its place but this place has to be thoroughly and painstakingly explained and demonstrated.

To "western" farmers all the benefits and drawbacks of a micro-irrigation system may be clearly understood and understandable. But not so to the members of a community that has been using ancestral farming tools and methods inherited from generation to generation. Where pride is measured based on how well the farmer knows how to use these ancestral tools.

Without all the effort on "technology adoption" (this is Marketing 101) any micro-irrigation system, no matter how good it may be, will soon be abandoned and the plastic and other parts sold, or stolen to be sold, in the local market.

The technical issues have been covered by other people on this post.

These considerations are not particular to micro-irrigation. I have faced exactly the same barriers trying to introduce "organic waste composting practices" in places like Mozambique and São Tomé e Príncipe.