Pedaling for water

Article Date

21 February 2012

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

When the dry season arrives in Ghana’s northeastern Bolgatanga district, land becomes a colorful labyrinth of tomatoes, okra, onions and green peppers. But growing these vegetables on the flat terrain of this very hot, arid area requires constant watering. And that can be a back-aching, time-consuming proposition for the women farmers who are responsible for soaking their land plots using buckets and well water.

However, a new technology recently introduced to the area is helping to make irrigating the land easier – and, I found out, is beginning to reap other benefits for rural women in Bolgatanga.

I traveled to Ghana at the tail end of the dry season to analyze an International Development Enterprises (iDE) program that promotes treadle pumps as a way to water farmland. By the time I arrived, about 300 farmers – some of whom are women – had bought and used the wooden pumps to help with their dry-season vegetable production. Installed to a well, the pump suctions groundwater to the surface when farmers pedal the pump’s treadles.

When positioned close to vegetable plots, the treadle pump provides a relatively regular stream of water that flows down small trenches running through the crops. Having a more easily accessible source of water means that women farmers can irrigate their plots in much less time than it takes using buckets. And that’s traditionally how things have been done: women throw a bucket tied to a rope into a well’s depths, fill it with water and pull it back up. Then, they haul the buckets to their plots to water the soil. And then they do it all over again. Back and forth, back and forth.

Using treadle pumps has spared women farmers from the physical rigors of “bucket irrigation.”  The efficiency of the pumps also allows many women to expand the vegetable gardens they cultivate, which in turn yields larger quantities of vegetables. If women are able to successfully sell their products in local markets, it can mean more money in their hands during the difficult dry season, and more food on the table for their families.

Most importantly, iDE offers microcredit loans to help women and other farmers buy the pump, which costs about $60. The loans also include a small amount of cash for fertilizer, seeds and other agricultural resources, which must be paid back in 4½ months. The loans are especially helpful for women farmers, who told me that without them, they couldn’t afford a pump. Combining the pump with a loan gives women a jump-start on their productivity. In addition, the program provides agronomic training to farmers on such things as how to protect crops from pests. Some women farmers felt the training helped them to improve their farming skills, as well as the quality of their vegetable harvests.

It’s just one place, in one corner of the world. But the treadle pump is a powerful example of a relatively low-cost piece of agricultural equipment that, if accessible to rural women, holds great potential for them to boost their productivity and economic earnings. Such innovative technologies, combined with better access to agricultural information and microfinance opportunities, can help change the trajectory of rural women’s lives worldwide.

Read Liquid Gold, the first installment in the Rural Impressions blog series, which is being published to mark the 56th session of the UN Conference on the Status of Women.