Farmer-led irrigation development, a process in which farmers initiate the establishment of irrigation, is increasingly recognised as the driving force behind irrigation expansion, agricultural intensification, and commercialisation in sub-Saharan Africa. Governments and development agencies aim to build upon these practices to further stimulate agricultural production and expand the irrigated area. In what seems the recognition of farmers’ ability to take the lead, various African states have developed policies for ‘demand-driven irrigation development’. This article scrutinises the actual practices of such a policy through a case analysis of an intervention in Northern Tanzania. The analysis demonstrates how even demand-driven policies can disturb the development trajectory of farmer-led irrigation development by reinforcing modernisation ideals adhered to by both farmers and government employees. An emphasis on the aesthetics of modernity leads to symbolic modernisation, cementing the dominant role of the state and formal expertise and paralysing farmers’ irrigation development initiatives. This does not necessarily lead to agricultural intensification and commercialisation, which the formal policies seem to aim for and which is central to processes of farmer-led irrigation development.