Overcoming Adversity To Bring Measured Irrigation to Peru

By German Mori Arbulu

What do you do when a major partner withdraws from a project just after it has been launched? Well, you don’t give up. There are always options on the old drawing board. That was the quandary I found myself in six months into the program I managed for the Italian-based NGO, ICU ( Istituto per la Cooperazione Universitaria), working out of Lima, Peru. Our plan was to bring an irrigation scheduling system to portions of Peru, thereby helping farmers nourish their crops while at the same time save water. 

Adversity in the quest for sustainable projects around the world comes with the territory. You have a plan “B” in your back pocket and hope for a little luck along the way. Our detour was a slight adjustment in our philosophy, but certainly not our principles.

It helped that a large Canadian mining company doing business in Peru with more than a $1 billion investment stepped up to prolong our plans with significant funding for our program.  The technical partner who dropped out figured our model, which was an emphasis on small farmers, could not be sustainable in the long term given the cost of equipment, training, and installation. 

They were probably right. 

It was true that the equipment needed by small farmers used for measuring soil moisture, weather patterns, and other environmental factors was costly. For the most part, it could only be afforded by larger farming enterprises. As originally envisioned, the purpose of the program was to aid small landholders to grow and market crops. Large industrial, agricultural enterprises didn’t require such assistance. 

It makes for a smart investment for them, and a good deal for Peru and its farmers in the region.  

So, working with ICU’s strategic advisor in Rome, Mariella Pisciotta, we developed an entirely new strategy based on the previous partner’s reality check. We had to scramble. We had a short time to secure additional funding to meet the goals set for us and to find a technical partner with whom to work. We used our entrepreneurial wits.

ICU’s innovation combines advanced weather technology in the field which is relayed via a website to farmers, letting them know when to irrigate and how much water to use. Previously, most farmers depended on gravitational irrigation, which couldn’t be controlled and wasted water. As envisioned, and already in operation in some areas of southern Peru covered by ICC, the irrigation equipment is monitored and automatically works to distribute water to crops. 

Our change in philosophy was not to abandon the small farmers but to work with them through agriculture cooperatives to which they belonged. This allowed us to combine resources so the monitoring equipment could be afforded and installed.  Also, local governments, realizing the importance of the irrigation projects, stepped up to help subsidize the equipment for the cooperatives. The last element in our new direction was switching from not just one technical partner but to a handful of different sources. 

Along with this came investment from local producers. They foot the bill for 40 percent of the cost, which means they are going to do their best to get it right. 

IUC has now covered 50,000 hectares with each producer in the cooperative having five hectares. Many are raising avocados and grapes, along with alfalfa. After three years, ICU in Peru has been able to help 6,500 producers. There have been savings of 19 million cubic meters of water, making it a successful program for another partner, Securing Water for Food (SWFF), which is funded by USAID, and the governments of Sweden, the Netherlands and South Africa. 

One of the early problems working with small farmers, not in a cooperative was insufficient time for transferring knowledge on how the system operates. 

New agreements with cooperative and the infusion of funds from the mining company, Zafranal, has extended the life of the program, which also includes training Peruvians on the monitoring equipment. The mining company approached us in the last months of our mission. It came at just the right time to extend the program for seven more months. Zafranal coming to the rescue was not entirely unselfish, but a practical manifestation of being a good corporate citizen when a company enters a new market. This company knows it will be in this area of Peru for the next 30 or 40 years. They know they have to be accepted and to maintain good relations with the agriculture producers.

It makes for a smart investment for them, and a good deal for Peru and its farmers in the region.  


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.