News.Jun 16, 2023

Rallying the Zambezi region around climate resilient agriculture 

Africa belongs to the regions most affected by climate change – a challenge for food security. SIWI’s Transforming Investment in Africa’s Rainfed Agriculture (TIARA) project is making the case for climate smart agriculture. The approach holds vast opportunities for food security, sustainability, and poverty reduction.

Jakob Schabus
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Jakob Schabus
Communications Manager,

After year-long droughts, the yields of Africa’s farmers are amongst the lowest in the world, making the continent highly dependent on food imports. With Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the Covid-19 pandemic, importing food has become a significant challenge. Governments are reacting to this: “We see a strong demand for increasing local food security in Africa”, says Lydie Menouer, advisor to the TIARA project.  

The continent has the potential to produce food beyond its needs. Yet, finding effective approaches to food production in the face of climate change, and uncertain water availability, has proven difficult.  

The many benefits of enhancing rainfed agriculture 

A huge challenge is that a majority of cultivable land lies in dry zones, where irrigation is not necessarily an option. 80% of all agricultural activity takes place on smallholder farms, which mostly rely on rainfall.  

Recognizing these conditions, the TIARA project advocates for increased investments towards rainfed agriculture, with a focus on managing what is termed as green water. It refers to the rainfall that ends up in the soil and is available to plant roots. Maximizing the capture, storage and usage of green water is a practice that holds enormous potential: “Currently, ecosystems are degraded by unsustainable practices, pollution, and climate change. With techniques within rainfed agriculture that utilize green water, yields increase and become more stable over time. If the high number of Africa’s smallholder farmers can produce more food in a more sustainable way, it can have a huge impact on food security and livelihoods”, says Menouer.  

The many benefits of green water management and rainfed agriculture practices include groundwater recharge, as well as the reduction of soil erosion and sedimentation. According to Menouer, climate smart practices hold the potential to break a vicious cycle: “Over the years, low yields have forced farmers to expand their land to new areas, including forests, which also increases soil erosion and sedimentation.”

She highlights other benefits of rainfed agriculture such as increased community ownership and sustainability. Additionally, estimates from the local NGOs partnering with TIARA show that investments in rainfed agriculture are a remarkably cost-efficient way to increase crops.


“Currently, ecosystems are degraded by unsustainable practices, pollution, and climate change. With techniques within rainfed agriculture that utilize green water, yields increase and become more stable over time.”

Lydie Menouer, Advisor, TIARA project

Changing practices requires support and incentives  

However, while currently 95% of food production in Africa relies on rainfed agriculture, only 5% of public agricultural water investments go into enhancing it. Asked about this discrepancy, Menouer outlines several reasons: “It has been easier for donors, governments, and development banks to focus on big infrastructure for irrigation, which has a proven link to high yields. But this is possible in geographical settings that have perennial sources of water.” 

Furthermore, different actors have faced several obstacles in implementing and upscaling projects that enhance rainfed agriculture: “It is not the case that donors and governments are not willing to support rainfed agriculture. Many projects that we visited, rely on small NGOs which do not have the capacity to upscale. A lack of knowledge on the expected benefits and the high administration costs to implement such change have hindered progress.”  

Menouer explains that “poverty and lack of support have been big hurdles on the side of the farmers.” In her experience, changing practices requires training and support. Yet already small investments can make a huge difference: “The farmers do not ask for much. They need training on these practices, some tools, equipment, and inputs to compensate for their increased efforts.”  

A final challenge for increasing investments concerns data: “There is a lack of cases with empirical data to determine the exact economic, environmental, and social benefits of enhanced rainfed agriculture. Those are needed for contracts between farmers and donors. We know from the farmers and local NGOs that there is a lot of impact. Yet, there is still a need to “effectively package and present these impacts to attract investors, whether they are public or private”.

“Our mechanism is not a top-down approach. It is a people centered approach. It is about the communities of farmers adopting new practices and properly getting compensated for it.”

Lydie Menouer, Advisor, TIARA project

Placing farmers at the center 

TIARA’s mission is to overcome these obstacles by building the case for financing rainfed agriculture, and ultimately increasing food security in Africa: “We have selected pilot projects in countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, where farmers are trained to change their practices. We are currently measuring the impact on farmers and the environment”, says Menouer.  

She argues that a key aspect of the approach is putting farmers at the center: “Our mechanism is not a top-down approach. It is a people centered approach. It is about the communities of farmers adopting new practices and properly getting compensated for it.” She adds: “We do not push for specific practices. We rely on local NGOs who are used to training farmers based on local conditions and are in constant dialogue with them.”  

In the past it has proved challenging to link funding to a clearly measurable output. Now, the results of the projects are evaluated in a collaborative effort: “We need to institutionalize investments in rainfed agriculture and get governments to develop supporting policies”. Once the benefits for ecosystems, communities, and food security are documented, a wide range of investors including municipalities, companies or climate funds could be targeted. Menouer explains that “to support this process, we identify relevant information and collect data on what results the change of practices generates. Together with the Zambezi Watercourse Commission, the next step will be to reach out to donors and demonstrate the potential of investments in rainfed agriculture”. 

 Investment Forum: A key moment to accelerate action  

A key moment for this next step is coming up in Botswana in August, at the Zambezi Rainfed Agriculture Investment Forum. The Forum is convened by the Zambezi Watercourse Commission, with SIWI as the co-organizer. “We want to bring together governments, development banks, private stakeholders, farmer organizations, NGOs, and research institutes with the goal to attract more investment into rainfed agriculture.”  

At the forum, TIARA will showcase different models for investments in rainfed agriculture and present first results from its pilot projects: “We want to discuss how we can upscale them. What works in one place does not necessarily work in another”, says Menouer. Therefore, the pilots work with “models that are easily adjustable to local conditions.” Gathering a wide range of different actors further serves as an opportunity to enhance collaboration: “We aim to improve the dialogue between governments and other stakeholders. There is still great potential to exchange knowledge.”  

Menouer hopes that the Forum could turn into a starting point for increased ambition: “I hope we can enhance collaboration and get some initial commitments from the governments and other public and private investors.”