VIOLET MENGO, Kasama
GRACE Nakatali of Chabukila village in Kasama makes her ends meet by farming on her five-hectare farm. Initially, Ms Nakatali irrigated her farm using water from the nearby Chibile stream. But this was mainly through the use of buckets, and she only grew groundnuts and maize.
Then, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) came in with the Technical Cooperation Project on Community-Based Smallholder Irrigation (T-COBSI), which is meant to assist small-scale irrigation farmers in the district. It was this set-up which changed for Ms Nakatali.
Despite the availability of enough surface water in most parts of Kasama, most of the farming in the region is rain-fed.
In fact, the scenario is not unique to the region.
Despite the country possessing between 423,000 and 523,000 hectares of land for irrigation, only about 100, 000 to 150,000 hectares of land is irrigated for agricultural production. One of the reasons often cited for the lack of development of irrigation farming is lack of funds.
But following the launch of the national irrigation policy in 2004, Government requested Japan for technical assistance.
And Japan obliged.
JICA, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, has been providing technical assistance in irrigation farming techniques and management to farmers through agricultural extension officers.
Only recently, a team of consultants was in Kasama to assess the impact of the simple irrigation schemes being used by farmers in the district.
Ms Nakatali was on hand to show the consultants how the technology is working for her.
The technology, which is less labour-intensive, is working well for her, and apart from maize and groundnuts, she is now also able to grow potatoes, cabbages and onions.
â€œI can now afford to pay school fees for all my children without any problem,â€ says the 56-year-old mother of eight in reference to how the simple irrigation system has boosted her productivity.
Ms Nakatali is one of the more than 300 farmers in Chabukila village who in 2009 came together to form the Chabukila Irrigation Scheme group.
With support from JICAâ€™s T-COBSI, in 2013, the group received training through agriculture extension officers in irrigation operation and management.
â€œWe are trained to use grass, logs of trees and clay soil to make weirs and simple technology using lines. Through this simple technology, weâ€™ve been able to irrigate our fields and grow different crops throughout the year,â€ Ms Nakatali says.
The JICA irrigation development assistance starts by looking at the system farmers are using at local level before it is upgraded to a stable structure using the T-COBSI approach.
As an entry point, a simple structure is first employed, which can be constructed using locally available materials such as grass, twigs and wood and clay soils by the farmers themselves. The agriculture extension officers who are based in the area lead in the promotion of this process. But the construction of the simple weir is not an end point in itself, where there is potential, a diversion structure is upgraded to a permanent one.
The ultimate goal of the project is to enhance food security in the area and ultimately the entire country.
The JICA project has run from May 2013 to 2017.
In the first year, a situation analysis was carried out on the impact of the pilot project, and after studying and confirming the irrigation potential of the sites, a series of trainings were provided to the technical service branch staff and extension officers in the construction of simple and permanent irrigation structures. The agriculture extension officers are responsible for training the farmers.
Chabukila village headman Denis Chileshe, who has been part and parcel of the irrigation scheme from inception, is happy with the progress people in his village are making as a result of the benefits of irrigated farming.
â€œWe have been able to build houses, take our children to school, a rare development in the past. Others now own bicycles and can take their produce to Kasama town when need be,â€ Mr Chileshe says.
And Chabukila Irrigation Scheme chairperson Tresphord Chileshe, who grows cabbages, tomatoes, maize and groundnuts, says through irrigation, he has managed to buy a bicycle and iron sheets for his previously grass-thatched house.
Ministry of Agriculture Kasama district assistant technical officer Mary Nchengamwa, who facilitates irrigation and promotion of the weirs in the district, is equally happy about the project.
â€œThe farmers have been very eager to have the irrigation structures, and over the years, the weirs have ensured that there is a sustained availability of water thereby enabling farmers to grow different crops,â€ says Ms Nchengamwa, who has been involved in training of farmers.
The team of consultants also checked on the project in Luwingu district.
But there, only one site has been upgraded by the project to a permanent structure with the rest using simple weirs. The permanent weir has a 50-year guarantee. The permanent weir in Luwingu is able to service Chibwale, Katangalele and Mpopolyongo villages.
â€œWe first started by having simple weirs which were made by ourselves. Eventually after gaining the experience and know-how, we were ready to have a permanent structure,â€ Mufili Chabwale Irrigation Scheme chairman Tresphord Mulenga says.
â€œI recently harvested potatoes which sold out like wildfire at the local market. I also have fish ponds which provide me with fish for household use and for sale. I also have an orchard where I grow bananas and oranges.â€
To ensure that each farmer has access to water, villagers do what is known as water budgeting or rationing where each farmer is allocated time to access water for their farm. The system is said to be working well.
Northern Province senior engineer Sifaya Mufalali says when farmers get used to operating and maintaining the irrigation scheme, facilities are stabilised to a permanent structure to ensure sustainability.
â€œBecause the technology used in constructing irrigation scheme is simple, more irrigation schemes can be developed in a short time,â€ Mr Mufalali says.
And T-COBSI co-leader Hideaki Hiruta says since the project started in 2013, a total of 19 districts in Northern, Muchinga and Luapula provinces were targeted.
â€œOur overall goal is to increase irrigated agricultural production in the targeted areas, promote and increase irrigated land through the provision of irrigation infrastructure for smallholder farmers,â€ Mr Hiruta says.
He says the advantages of the T-COBSI approach are that extension officers can be engaged in irrigation development and in turn farmers are trained to construct, operate and manage the structures on their own.
VIOLET MENGO, Kasama