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Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan (IWMI)

From global to local: building energy-smart local food systems post-COVID era

We face an impending global food emergency of unknown, but likely very large proportions. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the massive economic impacts of lockdown and associated income shocks are the proximate causes of this emergency. In Africa and South Asia, a large number of people have experienced more acutely these adverse shocks emanating from our food systems.

As we mark World Food Day and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we need to consider the deep structural problems of the way our food systems function, which we can no longer ignore. Addressing these issues will support poverty alleviation efforts in line with the Agenda 2030 plan of action for people, planet and prosperity -- something that is now even more relevant as the world grapples with the aftermath of the economic losses as a result of the coronavirus.

Smallholder agricultural production systems remain the main source of food and income for most of the world’s poorest people, in both rural and urban areas. Improving these systems is critical to global poverty reduction and achieving food security objectives. The United Nations defines food security as ensuring that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life. Thus, building more resilient local food systems, which take a radical change of direction, is fundamentally a matter of survival.

A building block for sustainable food systems

Food systems include the entire process, infrastructure, and technology involved in cultivating, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, and disposal of food and food-related items. The intersection of renewable energy and these local food systems is fertile ground for developing solutions to pressing problems and will help achieve a range of sustainable development goals (SDGs).

“It is important to highlight that an important factor for the success of local food systems is the value that consumers give to sustainability and minimization of environmental impact in cultivation practices. Integrating off-grid or distributed renewable energy (DRE) sources as part of local food systems can only add to that and reinforce the positive perceived value,” notes Sergio Rivero Achá, Energy and Environment Officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO).

In the tribal belts of eastern India, Khethworks, a social enterprise that works to improve the lives of smallholder farmers through innovative technology, found that reliable and affordable energy sources - both fuel and electricity - create challenges for smallholder farmers to increase income generation. Rising diesel prices and unavailability of affordable kerosene has increased costs for these farmers, making summer season cropping prohibitively expensive due to fuel costs for irrigation, and farmers irrigate below crop requirement to save money and meet their cash-flow reality. Some farmers have abandoned kerosene pumps for manual watering, resulting in a greatly reduced cropping area. In electrified areas with dedicated agricultural feeder lines, farmers have to risk extending hooked connections hundreds of meters to the field, face low voltage, and sporadic supply, resulting in poor performance and potential damage to the pumps.

“Productive-use electricity for agriculture must not only be reliable and affordable, but also sustained and predictable. When farmers have the confidence that their energy source will be reliable and affordable in the long run, they can have the confidence to make changes and investments in their irrigation and agricultural practices and infrastructure to increase their cultivation, productivity, and income generation. That is why we believe off-grid solar systems can serve as the backbone for these investments for increased agricultural productivity and scale,” says Victor Lesniewski, COO, Khethworks.

Farm to fork: Integrating energy into the entire agri value chain

Reliable power is essential not only for irrigation but at every step of the agri-value chain. Krishi Star, an Indian company that aims to improve lives for smallholder farmers and deliver quality food to end consumers by transforming agricultural value chains, helped set up farmer-owned food processing facilities that could serve as a natural hedge against crop price variability. The team found that there was a wide range of agricultural productivity amongst the farmers, and one of the biggest driving factors of productivity was reliable access to water, which was in turn impacted by access to power. To get into food processing units as well as for several agri value chains where product shelf-life is directly tied to temperature, access to electricity becomes even more crucial. And for many of these farmers, off-grid solar or distributed renewable energy solutions present a faster and more affordable way to improve productivity.

“Agriculture in India is largely disaggregated with the majority of the agricultural value chains dominated by small farmers and other fragmented supply chain actors. There are different theories as to how we can uplift the sector as a whole - whether through aggregation or empowering decentralized supply chains. However, both of those routes require consistent access to affordable electricity,” says Bryan Lee, CEO, Krishi Star.

Distributed clean energy critical to success

One of the solutions for addressing the barriers to growth, mitigating climate change and improving livelihoods is renewable energy mini-grids. Private power utilities serving rural communities supported by policy and finance can provide electricity to 450 million people by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Distributed or decentralized renewable energy solutions can also ensure reliable production, processing, storage, and distribution within agricultural value chains and food systems.

Speaking on the opportunities for synergies between the expansion of renewable energy mini-grids and strengthening Africa’s agricultural value chains towards the eradication of poverty, Benedikt Lenders, Head of Mini-Grids, ENGIE PowerCorner Africa says that mini-grids are the least cost of electrification solutions for offering access to energy for many rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa with a particular focus on productive uses and income-generating activities, and agro-value chain processing presents ideal productive activities that can be developed in these rural communities.

“Mini-grid operators need to take a holistic approach that involves addressing the entire value chain from production inputs, agri-techniques, farm logistics, cold stores, market linkages, and farmer producer companies and co-operatives,” says Vijay Bhaskar, Managing Director, Hamara Grid, a mini-grid consulting and training start-up in India. This will warrant a range of skill sets and is more likely to result in accelerated rural economic growth.

Karthik Chandrasekar, Founder, Sangam Ventures, an early-stage venture fund that seeks to improve access to sustainable energy and resource productivity solutions for the underserved in India, says that improving access to electricity for farmers not only reduces drudgery but also reduces costs allowing farmers to de-risk their agricultural activities with additional livelihood options and steadier cash flows. Many can even diversify their crops.

“Transforming agriculture and food systems toward increased equity, sustainability, and improved diets can only be achieved if clean energy is adequately considered. Depending on how rural energy systems are developed can unlock or limit access to water resources, reduce or increase food security and nutrition and contribute to climate goals or degrade natural resources that are vital to the ecosystems underpinning our food systems,” says Claudia Ringler, Deputy Division Director of the Environment and Production Technology Division, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Implementing the right policy framework to support agri markets

In order for these solutions to be scaled up, a market-driven approach along with positive policy action that allows for the accelerated growth of renewable energy and energy efficient or energy-smart solutions in agricultural value chains will be critical.

Martijn Veen, Global Head of Energy, SNV Netherlands Development Organisation says it will be important for governments to recognize the urgency and importance of integrated energy and agricultural value chain interventions. To be competitive and adapt to climate impacts, future agricultural/food systems must be accompanied by better, cleaner, and more sustainable energy processes. Clean, efficient, and sustainable energy applications bring lower emissions, reduced fossil fuel use, and/or cost savings within food value chains. Access to reliable energy also improves the competitiveness and climate resilience of agricultural value chains, increases labor productivity, generates employment, improves food quality, and addresses food insecurity.

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