Controlling the farmer: colonial and postcolonial irrigation interventions in Africa

14 January 2011

Aiming at full control over farmer actions was a shared characteristic of colonial irrigation engineering approaches. However, the way control was sought in African irrigation projects was different from Asian colonies. This paper traces the origins of colonial approaches to irrigation development in Africa and the continuities between colonial and post-colonial approaches. The Kano River Project in Nigeria, part of a larger irrigation development program from the late 1960s and early 1970s, serves as a typical example of a post-colonial irrigation system in which engineers drew upon colonial experiences. The Dutch engineers responsible for developing the system applied technologies from the Netherlands East Indies to regulate water flows in the system. At the same time, they engaged in a debate on how to organize farmers in the project to ensure efficient and rational use of water in irrigated farming. They joined project managers in viewing strong control over farmer production – a central feature of African colonial irrigation projects – as key to success. However, given the social conditions in the Kano area, particularly landownership, this strong control proved difficult to realize.