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Striving to Help Africa’s Small Farmers

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Written by Valley Irrigation |

It’s hard to deny that the effects of center pivot irrigation have been revolutionary. Nowhere is that more visible than in the United States where widespread conversion to center pivot irrigation has transformed agriculture and the landscape.  By using mechanized irrigation equipment, U.S. growers increased their revenue and their crop yields. Farmers grow more food with less water while being released from the drudgery of conventional irrigation methods and putting their labor to better use.

On a global scale, aggressive investments in irrigation, hybrid seeds, and fertilizer during the past 50 years have brought famine and poverty under control in Latin America, China, and South Asia. Yet most of Sub-Saharan Africa has made little progress during this same time period.  Limited investment in technology and infrastructure resulted in limited commercial farming in the region. 

Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 90 percent of the farmers are subsistence farmers. They spend half their annual incomes on food, leaving little money for education, health, and housing needs. (In contrast, only 6 percent of U.S. annual household income is spent on food). <

An exception is South Africa where Valley® introduced center pivots in the 1970s. In South Africa, pivots are used primarily by medium and large commercial farmers, who have experienced tremendous success. The same drivers of this success can serve as a model for small growers, and Valley Irrigation is working to develop a model of shared pivots for smallholder farmers.

Many African smallholder farmers remain poor because they depend on unreliable rainfall, making them vulnerable to drought and climate change. Although these disadvantages could be completely eliminated by irrigation, center pivots are often cited as too expensive for Africa’s farmers. 

However, if small farmers share a center pivot, the cost drops dramatically. Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate the dramatic reduction in cost of a center pivot once the radius of the field exceeds 300 meters.

Area of circle

Figure 1


Cost Per Hectacre

Figure 2


An association of smallholder farmers, or a large commercial producer serving as an irrigation and crop marketing provider, can own and operate the center pivot in cooperation with the smallholder farmers. This approach puts precise, efficient irrigation technology into the hands of small farmers, and the impact on farm production is dramatic because water is available where and when the crop requires it.  

Widespread use of this model could turn subsistence farmers into profitable commercial farmers by increasing yield and empowering farm workers. That's Valley, leading the way and feeding the world! 

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