Solar Irrigation Solutions in Africa
This is part of a series highlighting innovations and possibilities for action for the famine in Somalia. Most news frames the famine and political conflict as near unsolvable; we’re examining the on-the-ground measures that can help – from the large scale and political to the local and preventative.
When you have to hand-deliver water to irrigate your farm, you aren’t going to have the best possible crop yields. If you have to pay for water from a nearby pump, if one exists, you’re not going to be able to get very much if your total budget is less than a dollar a day and your crop yield is still going to be pretty limited.
But if you can manage to access the underground water table using a solar-powered pump that does not cost much to run, you can ease the burden of everyday farming, but you can also start farming more land than you ever could, feed your family, and sell the abundance of extra crops at the market in town.
It’s a world of difference that villages in Africa using solar-powered drip irrigation have been able to experience first-hand. It’s about as simple as it sounds: photovoltaic pumps are engineered to deliver groundwater to plots of about an acre or a little more. Land irrigated this way tends to require significantly less water than when other methods like flooding are used, and the pumps use the clean power of the sun instead of emissions-heavy (and expensive) diesel or other liquid fuel.
For three years now, a test project in Benin has yielded unexpectedly positive results with this technology. In the first two years, three solar-powered irrigation systems produced an average of 1.9 tons of produce a month. Vegetable intake in villages equipped with these systems jumped by 500 to 750 grams, or three to five servings, per person per day–during the dry season. And we’re talking diverse, nutritious vegetables: okra, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, carrots.
“Whereas a lot of them were consuming probably 90 percent of what they produced in their house and selling bits of extras over the year, now these women in households will keep 15 percent of what they produced and sell the rest. So the whole economics of the system changes for them,” said Jennifer Burney, the lead researcher in Benin.
Burney said that the market demand is so strong, these women sometimes don’t even need to bring their produce to the market. Customers will come calling at their homes first.
The research team behind the project in Benin estimates that a mere four percent of cropland in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, and that most rural communities rely on rain-fed agriculture–which is a problem when so much of the region has a rainy season of maybe three to six months (and that’s assuming no drought).
“Typically, they’ve been limited in the past in two ways. One, just the amount of water they could haul on their own,” Burney said about women in the region, who do most of the farming. “And secondly, by the seasons. Most of them are either hauling water from wells, or sometimes there are seasonal surface sources.” But those dissipate in the dry season, making it harder or impossible to access water for farming.
The idea is being picked up elsewhere: it’s gaining traction in rural Kenya, and the Red Cross has been using solar-powered pumps to access water in Sudan. That’s for drinking purposes, but as Burney pointed out, solar-powered irrigation can be used for any water need–domestic, productive, or a mix of both. The advantage to using it for crops is that it can help cover the costs associated with the pump. Pumping drinking water alone will not generate the income that selling vegetables grown using irrigated water will. Since there are some maintenance costs associated with the system, the income helps.
While no known testing of the technology has been done in Somalia, the chances of adopting this type of system there seem high. “In terms of agro-ecology, it is in a similar arid tropical zone where these types of systems have been really successful,” said Burney.
And while she said she isn’t familiar with the hydrology in Somalia, she did say that the specific conditions where the test case was done were among the most difficult. They hadn’t planned it that way, but when they began the project, they discovered a lot of granite in the area and a less-than-great success rate in finding water versus fractures. Clearly, that did not stop the system from generating exciting results.
Aside from finding the water, the other major step in getting a project like this off the ground is to first organize farmers that want to collaborate and are willing to buy in. That helps make the costs more feasible, said Burney. “That’s one way that you can get a kind of economy of scale when one is not readily available, where a group of people are essentially sharing and spreading out the cost of pumping groundwater–particularly if it’s deep, because the cost goes up.”
From there, the success seems natural. Agricultural yield goes up, which not only can improve nutrition at home but also gives people something of value to sell that they didn’t have before. As for whether there’s a real market in Somalia for that surplus of vegetables, Burney said, “I wouldn’t underestimate the demand. Even if prices are higher, prices will be determined in every marketplace.”