Solar-powered Irrigation to Tackle Drought in Southern Africa

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 32 million people across drought-hit southern Africa are food insecure. Food insecurity and dependence on rain-fed water threatens the ability for subsistence farming as well as commercial farming in the marketplace. If an efficient irrigation system is available, these smallholder farmers can substantially increase their yield and income and improve their quality of life.

Reginald Mapfumo, southern Africa green energy manager for HIVOS, a Dutch NGO, said that farmers often face unreliable rain-fed agricultural seasons, but with irrigation it is possible to irrigate for three seasons a year. This means that food security for a family is almost guaranteed. Additionally, farmers can sell the surplus produce and diversify their crops to sell to local markets.

Toby Hammond, managing director for FuturePump, a company that designs and manufactures solar panels for smallholder farmers, said that access to technologies can help to ensure that smallholder farmers’ livelihoods are secure. Farmers depend on expensive and inefficient petrol and diesel pumps for irrigation, which have a high extraction rate of water. Solar-powered irrigation is more affordable as well as sustainable for the purpose. 

Joseph Hwani, energy projects coordinator at Practical Action in Zimbabwe, said that farmers find it expensive to operate and maintain diesel-powered water pumping systems. These pumps are often out of function, leaving families in some regions in serious poverty and hunger.

Solar-powered irrigation could be a promising solution to this challenge. According to an International Renewable Energy Agency report published this year, in India, it is estimated that five million solar pumps could save 23 billion KWH of power, or 10 billion liters of diesel.

In sub-Saharan and southern African, investment and political will are key challenges. For instance, one would assume that the cost of solar energy per watt in sun-soaked parts of Africa would be low. However, in southern Africa, according to Mapfumo, solar power can cost higher than global prices because of the policies.

A positive shift in government policies to promote solar power, in line with the global vision outlined at the COP21 summit, can pave the way for a more sustainable and food secure future in southern Africa.


Image Credit: Humanosphere via Center on Food Security and the Environment