Low cost solar irrigation pumps for smallholder farmers are one way of helping to futureproof against unpredictable rainfall patterns and drought, and are much better for the environment
For many economies, especially those of developing countries, agriculture can be an important engine of economic growth. But with polluting diesel engines powering more and more farm equipment, the need to find clean energy solutions in the sector is pressing. In Asia and the Pacific for example, where more than 2 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, the region accounts for more than one third of the world's total emissions from agricultural production.
Low cost solar irrigation pumps for smallholder farmers are one way of helping to futureproof against unpredictable rainfall patterns and drought, and are much better for the environment.
Irrigating crops leads to more reliable harvests and provides the opportunity to grow and sell produce out of season. This can bring huge financial benefits to the farmers, their families and the wider community.
Access to affordable irrigation is a major limit to farm productivity. In Africa only around 5% of cultivated land is irrigated, compared to just over 40% in Asia. In Kenya alone there are 7.5 million smallholder farmers and less than 2% of farmland is irrigated. As rainfall patterns become more erratic, farmers are turning to manual or fossil-fuelled irrigation to save their crops. However, manual irrigation is very labour intensive and fossil fuel pumps lock farmers into costly recurring fuel and maintenance payments.
Helping smallholder farmers to diversify
The winner of the 2017 Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and Water, Futurepump, manufactures an affordable, highly efficient and portable solar irrigation pump aimed at the millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya and around the world. It's a cleaner and more sustainable alternative to costly and polluting petrol or diesel pumps, and instead of spending hours carrying water, farmers can increase their income, growing more crops, all year round. To date the company has sold around 1300 pumps in 29 countries.
Futurepump's customers farm rural, semi-commercial farms of less than one hectare - cultivating seasonal vegetables and crops like onions, cabbages and passionfruit - and often combine farming with other income-generating activities. The farmers have access to water sources at or near the surface. Installation of the solar pumps is carried out with trained technicians who also provide end-user training.
Their own brand SF1 pump comes with 24 months labour and spare parts warranty, which ensures that the product is a good investment for smallholder farmers. The SF1 is sold for 65,000 KES (about £485). To date, just under half of Kenyan customers have paid upfront with the rest paying on credit. An initial payment plan requires a down payment of $200 and then monthly payments of $25, meaning that the pump is owned outright in less than two years.
Its piston design makes it easy to maintain and fix. It can pump water from six metres and is therefore suitable for shallow wells, or lifting water directly from rivers, ponds and channels. It has a manual back-up and has been designed to be robust and can cope with some mud or particulates such as those in river water. The pump works well with tank, drip and sprinkler irrigation and is lightweight so can be carried by one person for short distances or be transported in a wheel barrow.
The pumps also allow farmers to grow high-value water-intensive crops such as tomato, watermelon and kale during more of the year. Swapping from a fuel pump results in a significant change in water flow rates. The slower, gentler flow of water from a solar pump is easier on the soil than that of fuel pumps, causing less plant root erosion and soil wash away.
Solar power and drip irrigation
The runner up for the 2017 Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and Water, Nairobi-based SunCulture, is combining the energy efficiency of solar power with drip irrigation to make it cheaper and easier for farmers to grow higher quality crops and significantly increase their yields.
Their AgroSolar irrigation system can pull water from any water source - lake, river, stream, well, borehole, water harvester - using solar power from the panels providing the pump's power directly without the need for expensive batteries or inverters. Water is pumped into a raised water storage tank during the day. When irrigation takes place during the evening, the farmer just has to open a valve on the water tank so that water flows down through a filtration system and onto crop root zones via drip irrigation tape.
Sunculture estimate that around 50% of their customers were using fuel pumps before switching to solar, and they calculate that farmers using their full kit will benefit on average by $14,000 a year compared to those using a fuel pump with furrow irrigation. The company provides agricultural advice to customers to help them make maximum productive use of the kits and are launching a "Pay-As-You-Grow" programme to help address the $150 billion global shortfall in agriculture finance.
Making sustainable farming in Asia easier
In Myanmar, Proximity Designs - the winner of the 2014 Ashden Award for Energy and Agriculture - has developed a ‘radically affordable' solar irrigation pump, the Lotus, which includes a pump, 260W of solar panels and a stand, all for just $345. The Lotus can yield more than 15,000 litres of water per day and it generally takes farmers about 11 months to pay back the cost of the pump, with fuel and labour savings when converting from a diesel pump. Farmers in dry zones of the country can expect this return to be even quicker.
It was a challenge for designers to create a pump that fit neatly into the 2-inch tube well found throughout Myanmar but worked for farmers everywhere as, in the Mandalay region for example, water levels are low, making it really important to have an alternative to increasingly expensive diesel pumps.
Proximity Designs is now starting to explore precision agriculture technologies such as irrigation sensors which can help farmers determine the optimum level of irrigation which will reduce costs and the risk of disease.
Chhavi Sharma is International Programme Manager with Ashden, a charity that rewards, supports and promotes sustainable energy leaders around the world. Since the Ashden Awards were founded in 2001, Ashden has rewarded more than 200 enterprises in the UK and around the world which so far have collectively improved the lives of some 80 million people, saving more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.