There is a need for an evidence-based approach to identify how best to support development of groundwater for small scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). We argue that it is important to focus this effort on shallow groundwater resources which are most likely to be used by poor rural communities in SSA. However, it is important to consider constraints, since shallow groundwater resources are likely to be vulnerable to over-exploitation and climatic variability. We examine here the opportunities and constraints and draw upon evidence from Ethiopia. We present a methodology for assessing and interpreting available shallow groundwater resources and argue that participatory monitoring of local water resources is desirable and feasible. We consider possib le models for developing distributed small-scale irrigation and assess its technical feasibility. Because of power limits on water lifting and also because of available technology for well construction, groundwater at depths of 50 m or 60 m cannot be regarded as easily accessible for small-scale irrigation. We therefore adopt a working definition of shallow groundwater as < 20 m depth. This detailed case study in the Dangila woreda in Ethiopia explores the feasibility of exploiting shallow groundwater for small-scale irrigation over a range of rainfall conditions. Variability of rainfall over the study period (9 % to 96 % probability of non-exceedance) does not translate into equivalent variability in groundwater levels and river baseflow. Groundwater levels, monitored by local communities, persist into the dry season to at least the end of December in most shallow wells, indicating that groundwater is available for irrigation use after the cessation of the wet season. Arguments historically put forward against the promotion of groundwater use for agriculture in SSA on the basis that aquifers are unproductive and irrigation will have unacceptable impacts on wetlands and other groundwater-dependent ecosystems appear exaggerated. It would be unwise to generalise from this case study to the whole of SSA, but useful insights into the wider issues are revealed by the case study approach. We believe there is a case for arguing that shallow groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa represents a neglected opportunity for sustainable intensification of small-scale agriculture.