Rainfall in semi-arid areas is generally insufficient to meet crop water requirements, and above all erratic in distribution. This leads to crop yield fluctuation, which drastically affects food security. Rainwater harvesting technologies have been implemented in these areas in order to mitigate the effect of perennial droughts. The successful adoption of these technologies can contribute to poverty alleviation, and therefore improve the livelihood of resource-poor subsistence farmers. Field trials for testing different rainwater harvesting scenarios are expensive, time consuming and laborious. As a result, crop models must be used to help study these systems, and thereby make prudent water harvesting design choices for specific situations. For this purpose, a simple, one-dimensional soil water balance model (Soil Water Balance-SWB) was modified by incorporating linear runoff estimation models in order to predict the soil water balance and crop yield under different rainwater harvesting design scenarios and to select the design most likely to succeed in a particular locality. Field data collected during the 2007/2008 maize growing season, on sandy clay loam soils, at the Hatfield Experimental Farm of the University of Pretoria, was used to parameterize the different runoff models and to calibrate the SWB crop model. Various rainwater harvesting design scenarios were run for two different semi-arid areas, on different soil types to illustrate the application of the SWB model as a tool to help design the most appropriate rainwater harvesting strategy, taking into account whether arable land is limiting or not limiting for crop production. The SWB model was successfully calibrated. Simulation results reveal that in drier years bigger design ratios (cropping area: runoff area) of the in-field rainwater harvesting technique (IRWH) are most likely to be successful, while in wetter years smaller design ratios of the IRWH technique or even simpler rainwater harvesting strategies such as the tied ridge and the conventional tillage techniques can harvest sufficient rainfall for maximum crop production. Results from field trials conducted in Pretoria, on sandy clay loam soils, confirmed that, in a wet season, maize yield is maximized by a smaller IRWH design (1:1B). The SWB model can be used as a tool to help selecting the most appropriate rainwater harvesting strategy under specific conditions with minimum input requirements.