Solar-Powered Irrigation: Climate-Friendly, Reliable and Affordable
Agriculture is the backbone of Ethiopia’s economy and offers two-thirds of employment opportunities to its citizens. With the majority of Ethiopia’s population living in rural areas, the agriculture sector primarily consists of smallholder farmers who make their living from less than 2 hectares of land.
The dependence of Ethiopian agriculture on rain and the variability of rainfall hampers the production and productivity of millions of these farmers. This problem is more visible in the Central Rift Valley (CRV) part of Ethiopia where, since 2018, Farm Africa, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and other development partners implemented an innovative project for redressing the water scarcity challenges of smallholder farmers.
Funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Natural Resource Management for Resilience and Economic Development in Rural Ethiopia (N4D) project was developed to offer a viable alternative to Ethiopia’s erratic rainfall patterns and stabilize agricultural production through solar-powered irrigation technologies promoted to smallholder farmers in the Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regions of Ethiopia.
Solar-powered pumps offer a low-cost and environmentally friendly alternative to electric irrigation technologies and motor pumps. Research suggests that investing in solar irrigation can profit smallholders.
Despite attempts by donors, nongovernmental organizations and private sector actors to pilot solar pump projects in Ethiopia, these have not been adequate to estimate the potential market. IWMI identified this gap and developed three practical and smart business models.
Business models for smallholder solar-powered irrigation
A recent IWMI research report indicates that there are three business models for solar-powered irrigation: individual purchase, out-grower or insurer scheme, and supplier model with bundled financing.
The individual purchase business model is based on the purchase of solar pumps by individual famers to increase their access to irrigation water throughout the cropping season. The out-grower or insurer model assumes involving a contractual partnership between farmers and companies for the production of commercial crops. The supplier model with bundled financing facilitates access by farmers to financing from solar irrigation pump suppliers, manufacturers or importers.
For now, according to Dr. Amare Hailesellasie (IWMI’s principal researcher), IWMI in Ethiopia is promoting the individual purchase model through a solar pump provision scheme to a few selected model farmers in the Adami-Tullu and East Meskan districts of the Oromiya and SNNP regions, respectively. This is more suitable as most farmers in these areas have not yet developed sufficient capability for procuring these climate-smart farming technologies. Thus far, 16 households have received the solar pumps from IWMI and Farm Africa.
In addition, IWMI, Farm Africa and district agricultural offices have provided training on technology operating skills, maintenance capacity, techniques of spare part changing and the like to support the capacity development of the model farmers on technology use and management. These efforts are gradually enabling other farmers to opt for solar pumps over diesel pumps, which are expensive and human energy-consuming technologies.
Solar pump irrigation for a brighter future
The IWMI- and Farm Africa-supplied solar pumps are now properly installed in the private compounds of the model farmers and are supporting agricultural initiatives of farmers in the Adami-Tullu and East Meskan districts of the CRV during the dry seasons. These pumps have also proved their utility to farmers near and far by helping them access the much-needed water from nearby rivers and private wells by lifting it from up to 20 meters depth in as little as 20 seconds.
According to Dessalegn Tegegn, an IWMI research officer on agricultural water management and environment, these easy-to-operate technologies have spared many farmers from unaffordable diesel expenses and have supported them to farm papaya, mango and avocado for consumption as well as trade.
Dirshaye Gute, a model farmer from East Meskan District of the SNNP region, is very grateful for the supply of the solar pumps and the subsequent training opportunities provided by IWMI and Farm Africa. “Now, I cultivate marketable crops and fruits even during the dry seasons. I use the new solar pump for farming and selling cabbage, maize, tomato and green pepper,” he says. He added that the new technology gives him a lasting solution to the water shortage challenge in his district and supports him to realize his dream of becoming a successful agricultural entrepreneur.
Shafi Hussein, office deputy head of the East Meskan District Agriculture Office, says, “The solar pumps are significantly supporting farmers to produce fruits and vegetables for home and market purposes through irrigation schemes, as well as ensure the food security of these farmers.” He added that his office is working with IWMI and Farm Africa to further popularize the adoption of solar-powered irrigation technologies by farmers of his district and beyond.