Solar-powered irrigation promises relief to southern Africa, but is it sustainable?

Residents of Kalale, Benin, display vegetables they grew with a solar-powered irrigation system. (Credit: Center on Food Security and the Environment)

Solar-powered irrigation has the potential to overcome the effects of drought throughout Africa as well as grow businesses to help overcome climactic shocks. But, in the face of unprecedented drought, can it overcome the challenges of growing water scarcity in rural areas of the developing world?

Food insecurity among smallholder farmers, driven by drought in southern Africa and much of sub-Saharan Africa, threatens the ability for subsistence farming as well as commercial farming in the marketplace. It was estimated in a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. that up to 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia rely on smallholder farms for their food. These farmers can “increase their yield and income by 45 percent over rain-fed crops,” Toby Hammond wrote via email. Hammond is the managing director for Futurepump, a company that designs and manufactures solar pumps for smallholder farmers, adding that poor “access to technologies and opportunities” is often a barrier in assuring that smallholder farmers’ livelihoods are secure.

In Zimbabwe, for example, anywhere between 25 percent and 80 percent of the community “relies on rain-fed water,” Reginald Mapfumo, southern Africa green energy manager for HIVOS, told Humanosphere. HIVOS is a Dutch advocacy nongovernmental organization that lobbies governments for the uptake of green, renewable technologies. This is worrying, given the fact that U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that around 31.6 million people across southern Africa are already food insecure.

As farmers often face unreliable rain-fed agricultural seasons, but with irrigation “you can irrigate for three seasons in a year,” meaning that it is “almost guaranteed that you will have food security for a family,” Mapfumo said. Mapfumo added that because of longer agricultural seasons “it also means that you can sell the surplus,” allowing farmers to improve their yield and diversify their crops to sell to local markets.

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Though donor-led irrigation projects are not new, solar-powered irrigation is arguably more fit for purpose. To start with, farmers often rely on “expensive and inefficient petrol pumps to irrigate their plots,” Hammond said. “These pumps have a high extraction rate of water” compared to solar-powered pumps. This affects the ability of farmers to use water efficiently and according to demand.

As a result, the associated costs of running diesel-powered pumps are too high, with farmers finding themselves unable to afford the costs to run diesel-powered pumps and some “finding it very expensive to operate and maintain the diesel-powered water pumping systems,” said Joseph Hwani, energy projects coordinator at Practical Action in Zimbabwe, in an interview with Humanosphere. Often these pumps are “no longer functioning” leaving families in some region “in serious poverty and hunger,” he said.

Because solar-powered irrigation is more efficient that its older diesel counterpart, Hammond is in no doubt that it is a “more efficient and consequently environmentally friendly option.” For example, in India, it is estimated that 5 million solar pumps could save 23 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 10 billion liters of diesel, according to an International Renewable Energy Agency report published this year.

Smallholder farmers aren’t the only ones to benefit from solar-powered energy. Businesses stand to benefit, too. Overall about “50 percent of businesses [including smallholder farmers]in Sub-Saharan Africa view a lack of reliable electricity access as a major constraint to doing business,” according to U.K. Department for International Development’s Energy Africa Campaign. This perspective “is encouraging a solar revolution which is vitally important to transform lives across the continent.” Mapfumo agreed, adding that “erratic power supplies” often affect business activities.

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Currently “smallholder farmers often have to spend hours performing back-breaking manual irrigation to ensure that their crops, which for many are their livelihood, can survive and produce enough to feed them,” Hammond said.

However, Mapfumo, though positive about the ability of solar-powered irrigation to increase farmers’ yields and incomes, is less positive of its application in areas where water scarcity is becoming more apparent. Mapfumo said, “I don’t know whether we need to do other things like water harvesting to at least cater for some of these disasters that are really affecting the agricultural cycle,” adding, “We are in a big fix.”

“By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could live under water stress conditions,” according to U.N. Water estimates.

Other issues include investment and political will, two intertwined issues. It would have been assumed that prices per watt for solar energy in sun-soaked parts of Africa would be low, due to reliable energy conversion. “This is not the case in southern Africa,” Mapfumo said, since “solar power can cost anywhere between 12 to 15 cents per watt, compared to global prices.” He said that “it’s because of some of the policies” where even though “the regulatory framework is in place, the price has been slow in coming down.”

At the COP21 Summit, there were calls for a move toward decentralized energy systems or “mini grids” and away from traditional, centralized energy, of which solar-powered energy is a key component. Despite this, some governments prefer to focus on “using coal in a cleaner way,” Mapfumo said, a stance many have also criticized the African Development Bank for defending.

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com