Solar powered irrigation is a simple farming technology that is radically changing the lives of thousands of smallholder farmers for the better. This applies especially to farmers in regions where water is sparse or only provided by more and more unreliable rainfalls.
To further assess the benefits that solar powered irrigation brings, the WE4F East Africa Hub is closely monitoring 17 pilot systems that have been installed between 2018 and 2020 in Kenya. The systems operate in various climatic and geographic regions in Kenya and are run by farmers that previously relied on rain-fed irrigation or used petrol-powered systems.
Increased harvests thanks to a more reliable and affordable water supply
The data collected on the demo sites from 2018 to 2022 shed a unique picture on just how much this simple technology can be a benefit for farmers.
The installed solar pumps increased the amount of water available during crop production. This is especially true for the farmers who did completely depend on the rains before installing the solar pump. With the new system, they gained access to a reliable water source for the first time and where to do complementary irrigation in times of insufficient rains
Most of the farmers, who previously irrigated with a diesel pump, would use more water with the solar pump. A sign that they restricted the utilization of water due to the high running costs for the diesel pumps. On average, each farmer increased their water consumption from previously 51 m³ per month to 114 m³ per month, an increase of 124%. The more reliable and cheaper supply of water leads to several benefits for the farmers.
The data shows that farmers using a SPIS have increased their acreage by 25% and diversified the number and types of crops grown. Besides the increase in land size, farm productivity has also improved, meaning farmers harvested more crops per area, thanks to a more suitable irrigation and extended cropping periods.
With higher yields, the farmers increased their revenue on average by 158 %. Their profits even increased by 239 %, which can be explained by cost savings on fuel that was replaced by solar energy.
The collected data shows that innovative solar powered irrigation is a game-changer to increasing productivity and farmers’ incomes. It also provides security to farmers in light of climate change by de-risking their agricultural production. Thanks to solar powered irrigation, farmers were able to diversify their crops, (partly or completely) started growing higher value crops, used additional cropping periods and land, and reduced their dependence on rainfalls.
As one smallholder farmer and WE4F end-user in Makueni County noted “We are living in an environment where solar power is so plentiful yet hasn’t been fully exploited to boost food production. Every year, we hear of hunger and deaths in these areas, forgetting that they are naturally sitting on a gold mine. The gold of solar power”.
Boosting food production in the East African region by promoting SPIS
On the other hand, data from Kenya’s National Irrigation Authority paints a rather not so fortunate picture of how just 3 % of Kenya’s arable land is currently irrigated. This is a clear testament that the WE4F East Africa Hub is strategically placed to assist the government to meet her development goals in boosting food production, which currently falls below the demand of the populace.
The outcomes from the field assessment from 2018-2022 underline the potential that SPIS offer to boost food production and improve livelihoods within Kenya, but also beyond its borders. It has been shown that farmers can significantly increase their productivity when irrigating sustainably. They do also become more resilient towards external shocks while contributing conducively to a transformation of agricultural and food systems in their region and beyond.
About the author:
Kilian Blumenthal, Advisor in the WE4F East Africa Hub based in Nairobi, Kenya
Kilian holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Engineering of the HAW Hamburg and a M.Sc. in Agricultural Sciences in the Tropics and Subtropics of the University of Hohenheim. His academic research focused on Solar Water Pumping Systems in Bolivia and the Potential Use of Solar Energy in the Maize Value Chain in Benin. He has done numerous trainings on the SPIS Toolbox and gained experience during longer stays in South America and Sub Saharan Africa.