By Jolene Njambi.
Solar technology for irrigation can triple profits for growers within one to two crop seasons, compared with using other forms of irrigation systems and rainfall, according to a new report.
International non-profit organization Winrock International, which specializes in solving social, agricultural and environmental challenges, has found solar water pumps increase farmers’ gross profits by up to 186 per cent within two crop seasons.
However, farmers frequently rely instead on inexpensive diesel water pumps, which are readily available to farmers who have limited resources to begin with. However, in the long-term, fuel and transport costs in buying fuel prove costly, even before the additional costs of employing staff to operate and manually irrigate the farms.
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“For me, a solar irrigation kit is very important. Without it, we spend $300 a month, if not more, to buy diesel and employ three staff to water the crops throughout. With a solar irrigation kit, you reduce that to one, which brings about a 30 per cent reduction in the cost of labour as well as the savings on fuel,” said Peter Mathenge, a bullet chillies and garlic farmer.
.“If we are ever to get a breakthrough as farmers, we have to start embracing technology, and that’s what I’ve done,” adds Mathenge. “Without technology, on my eighth acre farm, I would harvest about 90 kgs per week of bullet chilies, now I am harvesting on average 160 kgs. And with my garlic, I would harvest a maximum of 4,000 kgs after four months, now I get up to 10,000 kgs which is 2.5 times more than I would have previously harvested.
”For John Mutugi, a farmer from Meru who grows and exports baby carrots, installing solar panels in his field has similarly helped to power a drip-fed irrigation system and improve his yield at minimal cost.
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“I used to have problems with water but now I have none. Then, I used to use a water pump and during a dry spell I never got a good harvest or export. But now I’m exporting from January to December from the time I got the solar system installed,” he said.
However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) AQUASTAT datasite, only 6 per cent of cultivated land is under irrigation in subSaharan Africa.
This is partly due to the lack of access to micro-irrigation systems for smallholder farmers, who together still produce up to 80 per cent of Africa’s output. This has led to increased urgency in finding alternatives to ensure that farmers can move to constantly reliable output.
A major challenge is the high initial costs and lack of smallholder credit options for solar irrigation, with a small portable kit for irrigation, for example, costing about $500, which is quite expensive for smallholders.
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The Ministry of Energy has been promoting use of solar energy, but this has so been concentrated in funding the Solar for Schools programme and now extending this to off-grid clinics and dispensaries.
However, the private sector is also viewing solar energy as a business opportunity and venturing into providing climate friendly energy to poor communities. Through initiatives such as highly subsidized prices, social marketing and loan schemes, both businesses and non-profit organizations are now promoting the uptake of solar energy solutions by smallholders.
One such private entity is Sunculture.
“Food security in this continent is wanting. One of the biggest things we observed is that smallholder farmers in Africa don’t have access to the knowledge, capital or technologies that help them improve their yields,” said Samir Ibrahim, CEO and Co-Founder of SunCulture. To address this, his company has created the AgroSolar Irrigation Kit, which combines solar powered water pumping and drip irrigation. To prevent the cost from being a barrier to farmers in obtaining their solar kits, SunCulture has also adopted a Pay-As-You-Grow payment method, which allows farmers to pay in installments as their businesses progress.
With food security and nutrition as a leading item on the Big Four Agenda, optimizing solar energy use to empower small-scale farmers now promises the hope of a permanent solution
SunCulture can be reached on Phone: 0700 327002