Ethiopia realizing benefits of early investment in agriculture.

Since its rapid economic growth averaging 10 percent every year between 2004 and 2014, Ethiopia has emerged as a major engine driving development in Africa. And there are no signs that there will be a let-up in this growth any time soon.

The government has prepared a blueprint to achieve middle-income status — or gross national income of at least US$1006 per capita — by 2025. This would see a rapid increase in per capita income in Ethiopia, which is currently US$783, according to the World Bank.

Ethiopia’s growth has been propelled by at least two factors: the prioritization of agriculture as a key contributor to development and the fast-paced adoption of new technologies to boost the sector. A third of Ethiopia’s GDP is generated through agriculture, and more than 12 million households rely on small-scale farming for their livelihoods.

One of the drivers of growth in the agricultural sector has been the expansion of irrigation in a land that traditionally relied on rainfall to water crops. The country has seen the fastest growth in irrigation of any African country, with area under irrigation having increased by almost 52 percent between 2002 and 2014. This boosted productivity and income for farmers by helping them extend the growing season and become more consistent in their production.

Meanwhile, only 6 percent of arable land is currently irrigated across the whole of Africa. This means that there is huge potential to expand irrigation and unlock economic growth. These factors and more are highlighted in a new report from the Malabo Montpellier Panel. The panel convenes experts in agriculture, ecology, nutrition and food security to guide policy choices by African governments. The aim is to help the continent accelerate progress towards food security and improved nutrition.

The panel’s latest report analyses progress, and highlights best practice, in irrigation in six countries: Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Niger and South Africa, in addition to Ethiopia. Other African countries can draw lessons from the report’s insights.

The report identified a number of common factors in countries where significant progress has been made to expand irrigation, including key policy and institutional innovations. In the case of Ethiopia, one of the main reasons for its success is that agriculture and irrigation have been featured on the Ethiopian policy agenda since 1991. In addition, specialized institutions have been set up with clear commitments to maximize the benefits of water control and irrigation systems. Moreover, the government, which has invested significantly in the sector in the past, now aims to allocate a further US$15 billion to irrigation development by 2020.

Another major area of development has been the collection of data. This is an invaluable asset that allows for careful monitoring and management of resources such as water, especially in times of drought. In 2013, Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency began mapping more than 32,400 square kms to identify water resources, particularly shallow groundwater, with the potential for irrigation development.

The final results of this mapping in 89 districts revealed nearly 3 billion cubic meters of water at a depth of less than 30 meters. This could allow approximately 100,000 hectares of land to be brought under irrigation, benefiting 376,000 families.

The experience of Ethiopia and other countries leading on irrigation can help other African governments develop country-specific strategies to effectively take irrigation to scale. The benefits of doing so, such as enhancing on-farm productivity and income, and improving resilience and livelihoods, are transformational.