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Published: 12.09.2016

Innovative irrigation financing for smallholder farmers key to Kenya’s water-smart future

by PS Patrick Mwangi

Ministry Water and Irrigation


There is no disputing the importance of agriculture to Kenyan livelihoods and our economy. In 2014, Kenya imported food worth KES 114 billion. This figure is expected to increase to KES 200 billion by the end of 2016. Agriculture contributes approximately 28 percent of GDP, employs 75 percent of the national labor force and accounts for 65 percent of the country’s total exports. If we are serious about realizing our Vision 2030 goal of increasing agricultural production in the face of the country’s low water endowment, growing population and changing climate, we must focus our attention on two of the sector’s greatest contributors—water and smallholder farmers.

While we may agree upon the importance of water to our lives, we may not fully appreciate its fleeting nature if we do not manage our resources responsibly. If we maintain a business as usual approach to the way we manage our water resources, by the year 2030, Kenya will see a 30 percent gap between available water supply and demand. Expanding our agricultural production will therefore require we better manage our water resources to close this gap. Understanding how such resources are currently being used helps us decide the best way forward.

The agricultural sector is the largest user of water in Kenya. Of available water supply, about 60 percent of the country’s fresh water is used for agriculture. If we wish to expand the sector, it is imperative we work to improve agricultural water productivity by looking at water efficient technologies and practices. Given that less than 20 percent of Kenya’s arable land is suitable for rain fed agriculture, irrigation schemes, which currently cover only 2.4 percent of arable land, provide a more suitable solution.

We must therefore introduce farmers to new techniques, such as drip and sprinkler irrigation where appropriate. What many of us may not realize is that roughly 75 percent of Kenyan agricultural output is produced not by large scale agricultural companies, but by smallholder farmers. The role of these smallholders is therefore critical to attaining our goals.

While many larger companies have the resources to make their businesses more water efficient by investing in smarter irrigation systems, the majority of smallholders do not. Access to financing for the agriculture sector in Kenya, often perceived as risky, is extremely limited. A few banks and non-bank financial institutions, such as Barclays Bank, Equity Bank, Sidian Bank, formerly K-REP Bank, KCB, One Acre Fund and Umati Capital however, have taken initial steps to close the gap. These institutions are working to encourage investment in irrigation through traditional guarantees, supply chain financing, and group lending.

Compounding the lack of access to finance, is still reluctance and/or an inability on behalf of smallholder farmers to embrace more efficient irrigation technology. Further understanding of the benefits of efficient irrigation technologies and available options through capacity building is still needed to make this a reality. Successful interventions will therefore require an ecosystem approach that includes building awareness, developing financing mechanisms and connecting farmers to inputs and markets.

Invited by the government to help close the projected water gap, the Kenya 2030 Water Resources Group is a public-private-civil society partnership working with the Ministry of Water and Irrigation to build on these early financing initiatives. The Kenya 2030 WRG is working on developing national partnerships and structures with government, farmers, banking institutions, aggregators and equipment providers to encourage more lending to commercial smallholder farmers and prove market readiness.

Initial steps may include the use of bank guarantees, innovative blended finance mechanisms, or direct lending to non-bank financial institutions. Scaling-up investment will, however, require partnerships among stakeholders in the value chain.

Leveraged properly, innovative financing for smallholder farmers will emerge as a keystone to Kenya’s water-smart future.