Harvesting the sun: Challenges and opportunities in solar-powered agriculture

In the core of agricultural landscapes, the challenge of securing consistent access to energy and water resources persists. Despite their potential benefits, solar-powered irrigation systems remain underutilised. This article delves into the transformative impact of the Sustainable Energy for Smallholder Farmers project (SEFFA) in Kenya, shedding light on how solar-powered irrigation systems are changing the dynamics of smallholder farming, and addressing key challenges faced by farmers in the realm of climate change.

 SEFFA's approach to empowerment

SEFFA, operating in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, is a pioneering project promoting solar-powered irrigation systems among smallholder farmers. The project employs a market development strategy, focusing on last-mile distribution to ensure accessibility. The project adopts a results-based financing mechanism to achieve this, providing financial support to solar water pump (SWP) distributors. Additionally, SEFFA offers distributors tailored capacity building, technical assistance, and awareness creation, fostering a thriving market for SWPs.


Innovative transformations at the farm level

Anthony Nzioka's experience exemplifies the transformative potential of solar-powered irrigation. Residing in the semi-arid region of Makueni County, Anthony creatively harnessed a shallow sand dam to secure water supply despite erratic rainfall. Previously reliant on fuel pumps, he transitioned to a submersible SWP after attending a demo by Sunculture, a SWP distributor. The transition revealed the substantial cost savings of solar energy, prompting Anthony to expand his farming from an eighth to 4 acres. The introduction of drip kits further optimised water use and paved the way for increased crop variety, boosting his income and demonstrating the adaptability of smallholder farmers.

Anthony inspecting the submersible SWP in his sand dam.

Drip irrigation system for bean farming

Rachel Mukoruru's success story reinforces the commercial viability of SWPs. Operating a small-scale farm in Meru County, she and her husband leveraged SWPs to diversify their crops, resulting in profitable ventures. Beyond irrigation, the SWP is a lighting source, enhancing their livelihoods. Rachel's adoption of high-value crops like sweet potatoes and groundnuts, facilitated by agronomic support she received from her daughter, exemplifies the potential for increased income and sustainable agriculture through SWPs.

Challenges and opportunities

Solar-powered irrigation systems face challenges such as inadequate knowledge of safe installation and usage of solar water pumps, resulting in unsafe installations and increased maintenance costs. Water capacity and sunlight availability also remain concerns, with some farmers dissatisfied with water output during cloudy days. Resistance to change is highlighted as farmers prefer well-established methods like flood irrigation when new technologies do not seamlessly integrate into existing practices.

A farmer with his pump in the middle of a deep flowing river.

A farmer dealing with flood irrigation.

Recommendations for effective implementation

 The success of solar-powered irrigation relies on several factors. First, robust agronomic support is critical for farmers harnessing SWPs for optimal productivity. Proper training, technical assistance, and guidance on high-value crops can enhance their income and well-being.

Second, financial support mechanisms can catalyse SWP adoption. Sunculture's PAYGO model and collaborations with financial institutions demonstrate the potential to alleviate smallholder farmers' financial constraints. Such approaches enable farmers to invest in efficient irrigation methods, fostering sustainability.

 Lastly, a holistic approach encompassing technical training, installation support, and safe usage education is needed. Comprehensive training programs are essential to maximise SWP benefits and safeguard farmers' interests.

The SEFFA project's impact highlights the potential of solar-powered irrigation to revolutionise smallholder farming. By addressing challenges through agronomic support and technical and financial assistance, SWPs can unlock a sustainable pathway for farmers' empowerment. The stories of Anthony and Rachel underscore the transformational power of solar energy, showcasing how it can reshape agricultural practices, improve livelihoods, and contribute to climate adaptation and mitigation.

Suggested content

Case study

Adoption and use of solar water pumps in Kenya: Learnings from the SEFFA project

To learn more about the Sustainable Energy for Smallholder Farmers (SEFFA) project