Gender aspects of smallholder private groundwater irrigation in Ghana and Zambia


Barbara van Koppen



Barbara van Koppen (PhD) is Scientist Emerita/Consultant Poverty, Gender, and Water at the International Water Management Institute.


Key Takeaways

    How To Apply Insights

    • The importance of technology for women: avoiding the male monopolisation of technology, and instead showing that on the ground women already use technologies. It’s very important that women are supported in technology adoption.
    • It is important that women have their own fields, and that they have irrigation as well.
    • There is also a need for support for farmer-led irrigation in general. It is important to realise that farmer-led irrigation is often informal, but it is widespread.
    • Energy sources are also a key consideration for farmer-led irrigation. Often diesel is too expensive, so solar energy is very important for irrigation, and it is important to stimulate it.

    Findings & Research Conclusions

    This paper analyses gender dimensions of the adoption of small-scale private irrigation technologies in Ghana and Zambia.

    Continental and national policies promote gender equality also in the domains of agriculture and irrigation. Yet, evidence on the gender dimension of irrigation adoption processes in sub-Saharan Africa is rare and assumptions diverge. This paper aims to inform such divergence by evidence generated from three gender-disaggregated variables in the quantitative farm household surveys, which were carried out under the AgWater Solutions Project in Ghana and Zambia. The variables are: headship of household, labour provision and plot management as intra-household production sub-units.

    It was identified that female-headed households (FHHs) adopted irrigation at a rate that is at least two-thirds of that of male-headed households (MHHs). However, FHHs adopted manual irrigation technologies such as buckets more often, while MHHs favoured motor pumps and river diversions. Men generally provided more labour for irrigation activities. Women in FHHs provided least labour: only 35% of total household labour. Having an own plot of land encouraged female heads of households to adopt irrigation more often than overall adoption rates for female-headed households. Married women with their own plots of land had the highest rates of irrigation adoption out of all the categories in one site in Zambia, but adoption rates were lower than overall rates in two other sites. Women’s decision-making appeared to be somewhat stronger on irrigated plots than on rainfed plots.

    The conclusion is that the mode of agricultural growth that was found, and is triggered by irrigation and in which both genders engage, is a historically unique ‘dual irrigation culture’. Better implementation of gender equality policies will remove the structural obstacles that women still face, and contribute to both more gender equality and to faster irrigation adoption for accelerated agricultural growth.

    Research's methodology

    In Ghana a hut-to-hut census was carried out among 12,620 households in 5 regions, and in Zambia a hut-to-hut census was carried out among 1935 households in four districts. These censuses served as a framework for the selection of representative samples for household surveys. In Ghana, there was a hut-to-hut household survey among 494 households from 44 communities in 17 districts, In Zambia, there was a hut-to-hut household survey among 240 representative households, randomly selected from the census.

    In Ghana,10% of the households in the sample were headed by females. Between 31% and 47% of these were de facto female-headed households (FHHs). In Zambia, the proportions of FHHs in three districts were 22-25% (both de jure and de facto FHHs). Mpika was an exception with only 15% of FHHs.


    Focused on just irrigation use of technologies, but it could have been beneficial to also consider other uses of technologies, such as domestic uses, and the implications.

    Farmer-led Irrigation Farmers themselves investing in, financing, planning and constructing the small-scale infrastructure.
    De jure and de facto female-headed householdsFemale-headed households not only solely consist of widows and non-married women, but there are also female-headed households where the men have migrated, so the decision making is primarily done by women.  

    Reference this research

    Barbara Van Koppen, Lesley Hope & Willem Colenbrander (2013) Gender aspects of smallholder private groundwater irrigation in Ghana and Zambia, Water International, 38:6, 840-851

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