Putting water in local hands: Farmers to manage irrigation systems in Rwanda

Written by: Francisco Pichon

On 6 May 2016, the operation and the maintenance of five large irrigation systems in the District of Kirehe in Rwanda, have been formally transferred to Irrigation Water Users Organisations (IWUOs) by the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources. As such these are the first batch of IWUOs in Rwanda to formally sign an Irrigation Management Transfer Agreement (IMTA) - a tri-partite agreement between Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), District Authority and the IWUO.

In the week of 20 June 2016 a further seven IWUOs signed the agreement. The Mayor of Kirehe District co-signed the IMTA and said “Kirehe District is focused on sustainable development of its population. This means that Kirehe District’s cell and sector staff will continue to ensure that the IWUOs are working well and fulfilling their responsibilities."

The empowerment and capacity development of Irrigation Water User Organisations (IWUOs) have paved the way for Rwanda to take-over responsibility for Operation and Maintenance (O&M) of irrigation schemes in Kirehe district. We will work closely together with these IWUOs to ensure sustainable irrigation infrastructure,” said Louis Butare, Director General of Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB).

Cyunuzi  Rice Marshland under irrigation.
Credit: Viateur Karangwa
Daniel Tuyishime, President of Cyunuzi 2, one of the Irrigation Water Users Organisations, mentioned that “by signing the IMTA, we are very confident that we are going to succeed in O&M of irrigation schemes.” This is a challenging task as IWUOs can have as many as 820 members and some schemes are 15 kilometres long.

Kirehe Community-based Watershed Management Project

The Kirehe Community-based Watershed Management Project (KWAMP) is co-financed by Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’, Rwanda is famous for its highlands and deep valleys. A 2.7 per cent annual growth rate makes Rwanda the most densely populated African country (with 416 people per km2 ). Population growth and climate change coupled with Rwanda’s unique geography has led to severe environmental degradation, such as soil erosion and a scarcity of productive land. Sustainable soil and water conservation interventions and strategies to increase land productivity are thus needed.

Cyunuzi Dam. Credit: Viateur Karangwa
KWAMP, one of the most successful IFAD-supported projects in East and Southern Africa became effective in 2009 and will close in 2016. It has achieved its targets and attained its main development objectives as evidenced by a steep improvement in household and district-level food security, asset ownership and quality of life indicators among vulnerable groups in Kirehe district. 

The immediate objectives of the project converged on the development of sustainable small-scale commercial agriculture in Kirehe District. Claver Gasirabo, coordinator for KWAMP explains that “out of the total project budget, 33 per cent has been invested in the development of irrigation schemes, including the construction of six dams”. In Kirehe District a total of 19 schemes of 2.442 ha of land have been developed.

New Approach to Capacity Development of Irrigation Water Users Organizations

During the initial years of KWAMP implementation, the approach for training of IWUOs focused predominantly on classroom based training with lectures. These sessions typically involved several IWUO committees from different schemes at the same time in large joint sessions. Mid 2014, this approach had shown to have limited impact on the capacity and strength of the IWUOs, which as a result were considered not ready or able to take over O&M of the schemes. Therefore, KWAMP revised its capacity building approach in many aspects by the end of 2014, as indicated below:

A training package with 15 practical exercises based on the Farmer Field School (FFS) approach was prepared. Exercises were selected from the Farmers Water Management Training materials developed by FAO , complemented by exercises from other training manuals . The participatory exercises were further adapted and tested in a Training of Trainers (ToT). The FFS approach fits well with the approach adopted by MINAGRI/RAB and Twigire Muhinzi, which is also based on FFS methodology. 

The training package covers four key areas: management & governance, agronomy, technical irrigation and water management, monitoring & review and exchange of experiences. In using the different training methods, it became apparent that the more active the participants are involved the more they retain from the learning. Below are the key areas of the training programme with respective objectives: 
  • Management and governance: to understand the roles and responsibilities of the IWUO; causes of conflicts and their resolution and the awareness of the members of IWUO on their rights related to access to water services; information and their collective power in holding their leaders accountable.
  • Agronomy: to understand the steps and requirements for rice/vegetable cropping seasons; draft a cropping calendar with farmers trained in cooperatives and; facilitate exchange on techniques and inputs for production among rice/vegetable farmers.
  • Technical irrigation and water management: to improve land preparation, field layout and land levelling to obtain a more equal distribution of water in the field; monitor operation and maintenance of canals and structures; review present water use/field irrigation methods and assess shortcomings; introduce possible alternative field irrigation methods and; assist farmers in defining a proper irrigation frequency and irrigation amounts.
  • Monitoring and Review at IWUO, District and National levels: to self- evaluate the experience and areas for improvement; exchange of experiences with other IWUOs and; exchange experience with other projects, schemes, districts & national stakeholders.
As explained earlier, the focus shifted to organising training per scheme involving the full range of local stakeholders. “An increased focus on practical training activities at scheme level improves the learning among the IWUO committees, zone leaders and farmers” explains Joseph K. Nsabimana, IWUO Specialist of KWAMP. “This as opposed to more theoretical lectures in a meeting hall. For example for the review of the status of O&M of a scheme, the block leaders of left side blocks assessed the same block on the right side in terms of the status of O&M. Afterwards they gave each other feedback on their observations.” 

Kinoni I Dam. Credit: Viateur Karangwa

Training at scheme level increased the awareness of the roles and responsibilities of the IWUO among a much larger number of stakeholders. This resulted in enhanced monitoring and planning practices by all stakeholders involved.

A Training of Trainers organised in Kirehe in December 2014 expanded the pool of trainers involved in the capacity building by including local leaders, IWUO committee members and farmers. This has had a big impact on local involvement and sense of ownership. Farmer to farmer training has proven to be very effective, especially in convincing relatively new IWUOs that the tasks can be done, and demonstrating how these can be done in the best way. Exchange visits also contributed to the farmer to farmer learning. The involvement of local stakeholders as trainers resulted also in reduction of overall costs of the capacity building activities. 

With the formal transfer of management responsibilities, the duties of the different parties are clearly outlined:
  • IWUOs are responsible for an annual work plan, a maintenance plan, irrigation scheduling, water delivery, regular maintenance and repairs, water fee collection and reporting; 
  • MINAGRI is responsible for monitoring, training and advice;
  • The District is responsible for coordination and monitoring through the District Irrigation Steering Committee, providing regular support and monitoring & evaluation.

Connecting farmers to district and national Levels

Participatory workshops at district and national level allowed for the sharing of experiences between Irrigation water users organisations, Cooperatives, District staff, KWAMP and other irrigation projects in Rwanda, and RAB. 

Emmanuel Musabyimana, Head of unit of IWUOs at LIME, RAB underlines the importance of the active involvement of local stakeholders in Kirehe District: “For long-term sustainability the good cooperation between the IWUO, District and RAB is essential”. 

Bonaventure Mbarushimana Musaza, Sector Agronomist agrees that “As local leaders and technicians working with the IWUOs let us put together what is required for sustainable management of irrigation. Support in organization, maintenance activities, agriculture practices, evaluation of their activities, etc.” 

Ultimately these investments will pay off, as the mayor of Kirehe district indicates “Support to farmers’ organisations is the best way for developing the country: leading to sustainability of irrigation schemes, increased production, food security and increased income.”

Kirehe District Mayor receiving books providing summary of Main Investments.
Credit: Viateur Karangwa


Close monitoring over the next few years will indicate the long-term sustainability of the IWUOs and their capacity for O&M of the schemes. The past 18 months have already shown several positive outcomes, such as:
  • Improved scheme management practices, resulting in increased rice production, with some farmers attaining yields as high as 9 tons per hectare;
  • Profitable vegetable production thanks to successful irrigation activities in hillside schemes;
  • Increased water fee collection by IWUOs, in some schemes nearing 100%. Daniel Tuyishime, President of IWUO Cyunuzi 2 explains “success in water fee collection is guaranteed by timely providing all inputs required by farmers, before requesting them to pay”
  • Increased IWUO self-reliance by finding solutions for their needs without relying on project support (e.g.: some IWUOs are constructing their own office including Cyunuzi, Rukizi, Rwabutazi, and Kinnyogo). 

For more details, or a copy of the training package, please contact: Francisco Pichón  

[1] PARTICIPATORY TRAINING AND EXTENSION IN FARMERS' WATER MANAGEMENT (PT&E-FWM), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations AGLW - Water Service of the Land and Water Development Division, CD rom, April 2001
[1] A Trainer’s Manual for Community Managed Water Supplies in Kenya, 2012. FAO and UNICEF-Kenya Country Office, SEAGA Sector Guide on Irrigation – Socio- economic and Gender Analysis Programme, FAO, 2001