Farmers know that sunlight makes crops grow. Now, many are discovering that it is also vital for providing another key agricultural input: fresh water. Irrigation using decentralized renewable energy is witnessing rapid adoption. At the end of 2015, Bangladesh announced targets to support 1,250 solar water pumps by 2018, in a bid to reduce the $900 million spent per year for 1 million tons of diesel fuel to power its irrigation systems. Algeria now has 300MW of solar water pumping capacity and solar irrigation is helping farmers in Syria combat the electricity shortages from the devastating civil conflict. Irrigation is vital for development. Around the world there are 500 million one-acre farmers for whom a good supply of water is critical, not least this year as the drought from El Niño is already threatening 100 million people in Africa, Asia and South America.
The opportunity is immense. According to Samir Ibrahim, CEO of SunCulture, Sub-Saharan Africa has 60% of the world's uncultivated land and the lowest yield of any region globally. Less than 6% of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is under irrigation, compared to 20% in the rest of the world. Solar-powered irrigation enables farmers to switch from expensive, heavy and polluting diesel-powered water pumps to sustainable, renewable power. This provides a consistent supply of water to support productivity throughout dry seasons, with knock-on benefits to nutrition and household income.
Organizations like Futurepump, a social enterprise operating in East Africa, are also going one step further by helping small landholders with new business opportunities. As Futurepump builds its network of farmers—which can now grow greater and more reliable volumes of produce year round—they are also able to link them with local and international markets. Futurepump is already seeing positive correlations between solar irrigation and small holders entering the formal economy, with mobile phone enabled payment making it easier for farmers to both purchase the $650 systems (by paying for it in installments) and to build up a good credit history.
Solar irrigation can also have a positive impact on gender equality. Women in Africa and Asia make up 50% of the agricultural labor force, yet they have less access to credit and formal banking, which can be improved by credit history borne from payments for pay-as-you-go solar water pumps. Savings in time and labor were also seen in irrigation projects by the Solar Electric Light Fund, which supported women’s farming groups in rural Benin. It is the women’s traditional role to haul water by hand, often from very long distances.
Wind, hydro and biomass are also providing huge benefits for agriculture and irrigation, with 300,000 off-grid wind pumps operating in Southern Africa alone.
The nexus between energy, water, food, security and development is clear. Clear again, is the huge role that decentralized renewables can play in creating new economic opportunities, and bringing water, and food, to millions.