Unlocking the irrigation potential of sub-Saharan Africa through public-private partnerships

A man waters his crops in Ghana

Less than one tenth of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to around one third across much of East, South, and Southeast Asia. Given how much more can be produced under irrigation, not least because more than one crop a year can usually be grown, expanding it in Africa is a major opportunity.

But irrigation requires capital for dams, river off-takes, wells, pumps and pipes. It also requires know-how. Governments have only limited capacity in specialist staff and budgets, while farmers with sources of water often lack capital and expertise in irrigation. In this context, public-private partnerships (PPPs), between government agencies, farmers and private companies can potentially overcome these difficulties. Private companies experienced in irrigation can bring in extra capital and know-how to combine with government resources and the efforts of local farmers. The right kind of PPPs thus promises to unlock the full potential of irrigable land and thereby generate wins for all concerned[1].

That said, however, making PPPs work in rural Africa is far from straightforward, in large part owing to the very different resources, perspectives and experience that the three parties – government, commercial enterprise, and farmers – bring to the partnership. Moreover, such partnerships are relatively novel in rural areas: few of the parties have much experience of creating them and making them work.

The research

The DEGRP research project Assessing Models of Public-Private Partnerships for Irrigation Development in Africa (AMPPPIDA) addressed these issues by reviewing the experiences of PPPs for irrigation in Ghana and Tanzania. The study was guided by four questions:

  • What role can PPPs play in expanding irrigation and encouraging innovation in irrigation?
  • How effective have PPPs for irrigation been, and for what reasons?
  • What incentives do different kinds of PPPs offer for the partners and with what outcomes?
  • How do PPPs affect different groups, i.e. women and men?

Ghana and Tanzania were selected for study because both countries had legislated to expand the role of the private sector in irrigation.

The research team was led by Ruth Meinzen-Dick[2] from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Faustin Maganga (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), and Saa Dittoh (University of Development Studies, Ghana).

To answer the questions, the team reviewed secondary literature, then, in the two countries, mapped stakeholders, interviewed key informants and held focus group discussions with policy-makers, leaders, farmers, irrigation scheme operators and community organisations. As understanding of PPPs grew, the team developed a simple tool to assess the benefits, costs and risks of the partnership to different parties.

Study findings

Key findings from the research comprise:

  • It can be difficult to combine public with private benefits. Governments focus on development outcomes, private firms look to make profits, and farmers want to produce and earn more.
  • Agriculture is inherently risky, owing to varying weather, incidence of pests and diseases, and market prices. The uncertainty of agricultural investment can deter private investors.
  • PPPs are not just about capital investments in work and equipment. Capacity has to be created to operate newly-installed irrigation systems: including the skills of irrigating farmers, associations of water users, links to input suppliers and technical back-up, and marketing of crops. Without such support, irrigation projects are unlikely to develop their full potential.
  • Land and water rights are central, both to encouraging investment and innovation, as well as to ensure that the benefits of irrigation are shared equitably between the different parties.
  • PPPs have often been driven by public agencies, with less scope for contributions from private firms, and even less participation of (smallholder) farmers – who often feel left out. Even though Ghana has a law that mandates 30% of the irrigated land to be allocated to smallholders, they are still not well integrated into the development of irrigation PPPs.
  • Among farmers, women and youth are least likely to be engaged with the PPP – and hence risk being marginalised.
  • Traditional leaders and local politicians can block or speed up PPPs. Hence, they need to be included in early discussions.
  • Building trust is vital, but governments, private investors and smallholders are not used to cooperating, lacking experience and shared understandings.

While PPPs can provide substantial benefits, their complexity also carries significant financial, economic and environmental risks.

The project’s influence

The DEGRP research team created a new tool to map stakeholders in irrigation PPPs, accompanied by a matrix showing the costs, benefits and risks to different parties. These tools were provided, with training, to staff of the National Irrigation Commission, to improve transparency in their PPP. They have since piloted the tools in a new irrigation system.

The project also influenced policy. When the Government of Ghana prepared its new National Irrigation Strategy it focused mostly on large-scale PPPs with big investors. Taking DEGRP research findings into account, policy-makers decided then to also include projects with smallholder farmers as an alternative PPP approach.

Outside of the two countries, the project has also influenced debates about irrigation and PPP. The research team presented on multiple occasions at international development forums, including the 2016 World Bank Development Finance Forum and the IFAD/DIE International Dialogue on Water in Agriculture. As a result, different new projects in other countries, such as a value chain project in Georgia, have started to use the tools developed by AMPPPIDA.

PPPs may be able to contribute to closing the financing gap for achieving the SDGs, including in the irrigation sector. However, they need to be designed, developed and managed with care – for instance, by using the tools developed by this research – to harness their full potential and avoid pitfalls.


[1] An increased focus on PPPs was also one of the major outcomes of the 2015 Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[2] In July 2019, in recognition for her research on irrigation, Ruth Meinzen-Dick received the 2019 Elinor Ostrom Award on Collective Governance of the Commons.