Closing the Demand-Supply Gap in Mali’s Solar-Powered Irrigation Value Chains
This post was written by Thai Thi Minh, senior researcher — Innovation Scaling at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and Cecily Layzell, IWMI consultant.
Low rates of energy access and dependence on fuel imports in Mali have spurred the demand for off-grid, renewable energy solutions, such as solar. Interest in renewables is particularly high in agricultural areas, where solar-powered pumps have emerged as a climate-smart irrigation technology for farmers.
Despite this interest, there is often a mismatch between demand and supply in Mali’s solar-powered irrigation value chains. There are several reasons for this. For farmers, they include limited access to information and affordable credit, and underdeveloped markets for inputs (such as seeds and fertilizer) and outputs (irrigated agricultural products). In addition, many pump suppliers have an incomplete picture of who their customers are and how to reach them.
As a first step toward making irrigated agriculture profitable for both solar-powered pump buyers and sellers, IWMI organized the first demand-supply linkages workshop and field demonstrations in Mali’s southern Sikasso region in June 2022. Sikasso has large areas suitable for solar-powered irrigation, but experiences high rates of malnutrition.
The workshop was based on value chain-based scaling pathways that IWMI codeveloped in Ghana and Ethiopia, under the USAID-funded Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and Africa RISING projects. In Ghana, IWMI works closely with a single pump supplier, Pumptech, using demand-supply linkages workshops, among other things, to establish strong distribution and service networks. Between 2020 and 2021, IWMI’s support helped Pumptech increase its sales by 80%.
Now that this approach has been validated, IWMI aims to accelerate progress in Mali by involving and connecting as many actors in solar-powered irrigation value chains as possible. Almost 200 people attended the first workshop in Sikasso. They included representatives from four private sector pump suppliers (EcoTech, EMICOM, Horonya Solar and Sonikara Solar Electro), 134 farmers as well as technicians, extension agents, input dealers, financial institutions and public and private research organizations. The workshop was followed by two field demonstrations of various pumps and other solar-powered technologies, such as sprinklers, small mills and lights, involving around 200 farmers.
During the workshop, IWMI presented the market segmentation research it carried out in Sikasso to identify and segment the farmers interested in investing in solar-powered pumps. Five segments were identified: resource-rich, resource-limited and resource-poor farmers, farmer groups and institutional clients. The first four segments are slightly different in terms of the amount of water needed, land and water access, pump preferences and capacity to pay for the technology.
A number of pump suppliers are already using this information to target their products and services to the right farmers in the right way. Even so, marketing efforts tend to focus on resource-rich farmers and institutional clients. Much less attention is paid to the millions of resource-poor and resource-limited farmers who could benefit from solar-powered irrigation if the enabling environment were improved.
The participating farmers were actively engaged in the workshop and demonstrations, asking questions and noting the challenges they face. A recurring comment was that cheaper, usually Chinese, pumps break down quickly. Other common issues were access to credit and reliable advice on where to buy high-quality pumps and how to irrigate crops efficiently.
Access to technical knowledge and services
One man who may have found a solution to the problem of pump breakdowns is Aboubacar Traoré, a technician IWMI researchers had met previously. During the workshop, he shared how he had assembled several pumps using secondhand spare parts from imported pumps. He also explained that a pump’s lifespan is largely determined by a small ring that prevents water running from the lift mechanism into the motor. The lift mechanism of Chinese pumps quickly becomes damaged because the ring wears down. He found that he could replace the damaged pump ring with a similar ring used to fix cars that only costs 2,500 West African Francs ($4).
In Mali’s long supply chains, local technicians are a crucial link between pump suppliers and farmers. However, levels of technical knowledge and service are generally low. IWMI hopes that highlighting the ingenuity of people like Traoré will help build the capacity of other technicians in the region.
Access to credit
Another important topic was the cost of high-quality, solar-powered irrigation pumps, which most farmers cannot afford, and the options for accessing credit. EcoTech, one of the four private sector companies attending, offers pay-as-you-go financing. This allows farmers to use the pump while making small, regular payments until the total cost of the equipment is paid off.
EMICOM recently started offering this option too. As part of an IWMI-led internship and innovation program, an intern is working with EMICOM to develop a digital pay-as-you-go credit assessment tool. This will enable the company to partner with local financial institutions to identify customers eligible for credit.
WhatsApp as a knowledge-sharing and sales platform
After the event, participants were asked if they were interested in joining the WhatsApp groups the companies will establish. More than 200 people signed up. These groups, which have been very successful in Ghana and Ethiopia, serve as both a knowledge-sharing and sales platform. For example, farmers can ask questions and share successes while companies can identify local agents for their products.
Follow-up meetings with the companies highlighted several elements that make the demand-supply linkages approach suitable for reaching a large number of customers directly. First, the approach targets farmers (demand), pump companies (supply) and other value chain actors (linkages), enabling effective marketing and capitalizing on existing service networks.
Second, understanding diverse farmer segments, solar irrigation suitability and pump characteristics helps the companies to prioritize geographical areas for their marketing activities. For instance, the SF2 pump sold by EMICOM is suitable for the Kayes, Kita, Kenieba and Baffalbe areas. Here, resource-limited and resource-poor farmers can access shallow groundwater that matches the pump’s capacity.
Finally, it was agreed that additional research would be beneficial to segment solar-based irrigation along the continuum of agricultural water management, namely water lifting and storage, conveyance and application. This segmentation will help optimize engagement of private sector companies that supply different equipment along the continuum, creating a more tailored irrigation market for farmers.