Smallholder irrigation farming is potentially transformative to poor communities. Although
previous studies have examined the relationship between smallholder irrigation farming and
livelihoods in South Africa, little has been done to quantify the contribution and to examine how
benefits from smallholder irrigation are distributed across different types of households. It is
often assumed that the benefits flowing from irrigation farming will be distributed evenly among
the irrigators. Furthermore, previous studies have focused on farmers operating on irrigation
schemes to the exclusion of independent smallholder irrigation farmers.
This thesis aims to examine the contribution of smallholder irrigation farming to rural
livelihoods in South Africa, specifically the contribution of smallholder irrigation farming to
improved household income and food security as pathways out of poverty for rural households.
The study provides a more comprehensive analysis of the impact of smallholder irrigation
farming on rural livelihoods by including independent irrigators. Specifically, the study
addresses the following questions: How has smallholder irrigation farming contributed to
household income and food security in the study area? Are household income and food security
significant pathways through which smallholder irrigation farming contributes to rural livelihoods? To what extent does smallholder irrigation farming contribute to household income
and food security? What factors determine benefit distribution among irrigators?
The study was conducted in Mopani district in the Greater Tzaneen municipality of Limpopo
Province of South Africa in 2013. Julesburg irrigation scheme, located in the former Gazankulu
and Lebowakgomo homelands, formed the anchor of the study area. Data were collected through
a survey of 180 rural households, 27 of which were smallholder irrigation scheme farmers, 35
smallholder non-irrigation scheme farmers (independent irrigators), 53 smallholder farmers
practising home gardening and 65 other households that included dryland farmers and those who
did not practise farming. The households were selected from villages in the vicinity of the
irrigation scheme. Farming households represented three groups of farmers, namely, scheme
irrigators, independent irrigators and home gardeners. Data were collected through face-to-face
interviews with the sampled households.
Data analysis employed econometric regression models, semi-parametric propensity score
matching techniques and the analysis of variance to compare livelihood outcomes between
irrigating and non-irrigating households. Irrigation was the treatment and non-irrigators were
used as a control group for propensity score matching.
Results of the survey identified substantial differences in the capital base among home gardener,
scheme and independent irrigator households. Households involved in irrigation farming had a
stronger capital base in terms of natural, physical and financial capital. Differences in the capital
base existed even if income flows from agriculture were not considered, suggesting that
participation in irrigation farming positively affects the overall capital base of rural households.
The results also provide sufficient evidence that smallholder irrigation farming makes a
significant contribution to rural livelihoods through its effect on household income and food
security. Irrigators were found to have a significantly higher household income and were more
food-secure than their non-irrigating counterparts, suggesting that smallholder irrigation
contributed positively to rural livelihoods. This provides a strong motivation for continued
investment in smallholder irrigation farming in South Africa as part of a strategy to improve
rural livelihoods and to grow the rural economy. However, the benefits from irrigation accrue
unevenly for different types of farmers and, therefore, they are not equally successful. The main
determinants of benefit distribution were: adequacy of source of water for farming, gender and
marital status of the household head, ownership of transport means and access to financial
The contribution of smallholder irrigation to rural livelihoods can be further enhanced by
focusing on policies that enhance female participation in irrigation farming, equip farmers with
entrepreneurial skills, encourage membership of associations and enhance the effectiveness of
the associations to allow more farmers to participate in irrigation farming. As independent
irrigators benefit more from smallholder irrigation farming, independent irrigation should be
promoted as an option for expanding smallholder irrigation farming. Such policies should be
integrated into the overall strategy of growing the rural economy within the National
Development Plan of the country.