Long sunny spells inspires irrigation

With Kenya being among few countries enjoying more concentrated sunlight compared to the rest of the world, two entrepreneurs are cashing on this phenomenon to introduce low cost solar irrigation among smallholder farmers a venture that is now paying off.

Charles Nichols and Samir Ibrahim co-founded SunCulture and created the AgroSolar Irrigation Kit to help Kenyan farmers farm more sustainably. The Irrigation Kit that they developed uses solar water pumping technology and high-efficiency drip irrigation. Because the pump is solar it works well in Kenya’s climate, especially the country’s drier regions, noted Ibrahim.

Kenya has 5.4 million hectares of arable land. Only 17 percent of the country’s land, though, is suitable for rain-fed agriculture. The remainder of the land is in need of irrigation and pumping technology. Kenyan farmers can use diesel and treadle pumps to address their farming needs, but the pumps’ technologies have higher input costs, and labor inefficiencies.

The SunCulture founders were inspired to developed the kit after attending a talk about the lack of efficient irrigation methods in the developing world — Nichols discovered that solar water pumps typically used for heating water could also be used for irrigation purposes and in September 2012, the business partners relocated to Kenya full-time to grow their business.

The Kit works by pulling water from water sources, such as a lake, river, stream, well, borehole, water harvester, etc., through the use of solar power. The solar panels provide the pump’s electricity. No batteries or inverters are needed. The water is then pumped into a raised water storage tank during the day. When a farmer sets up irrigation for the evening, she simply opens a valve on the water tank that allows water to flow through a filtration system and onto crop root zones via the drip irrigation tape.

The AgroSolar Irrigation Kit includes solar panels, a stainless steel submersible electric water pump, a liter sturdy water tank, drip irrigation system, and installation and agronomy services, and a two-year warranty with onsite assistance within 48 hours of purchase. The Kit also comes with a custom-designed, pole-mount security kit for the solar panels, which raises the solar modules four meters above the ground. Also: the submersible pump can be secured using a steel-door locking system.

While the partners note that SunCulture can scale its product to serve any size farm, they admit that the Kit works best for farms between one and 40 acres. “Usually, people with larger plots of land move out of the small-scale commercial farmer category and into the large-scale commercial farmer (oftentimes growing flowers). Most of the time, we have found that people with larger plots of land do not need all of our services as they are already in full-production, but we are able to serve them. But it is important to note that our system can serve farms of any size,” Ibrahim said.

The price of SunCulture’s kit depends on many factors, such as the size of farm that needs to be irrigated, distance to the nearest water source and depth of the water source. In addition to the Kit, the company also provides Kit buyers with water analysis service and crop recommendations based on its soil testing results. The company also trains and supports farmers and has partnered with finance institutions that help provide loans and monetary help to farmers, too.

Nichols and Ibrahim chose to make SunCulture for-profit to ensure the company could easily serve increasing agriculture needs throughout the country. The business’ success is based on the success of the farmers.