New Irrigation System Reaches the Poorest Farmers

Published: Jun. 3, 2016

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Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development supports the development and deployment of clean energy innovations that increase agriculture productivity and stimulate low carbon economic growth in the agriculture sector of developing countries to help end extreme poverty and extreme hunger.

Mandera is one of the poorest parts of Kenya where 88% of the population live below the poverty line. By cooperating to spread one innovation together, the two innovators SunCulture and Islamic Relief Kenya have been able to reach many of the poorest farmers in Mandera.

SunCulture, a private enterprise based in Nairobi, and Islamic Relief Kenya, a NGO that has years of experience working with and mobilizing small scale farmers in Mandera, have both received support from two challenge funds that Sida has in collaboration with USAID, Powering Agriculture and Securing Water for Food. The support is used to spread and sell a solar powered irrigation system to mainly small scale farmers in Kenya.

Agrosolar Irrigation Kit (ASIK)

The irrigation system that is called the Agrosolar Irrigation Kit (ASIK), and has been developed by SunCulture, can use water from any water source such as boreholes, wells, channels or lakes. The water is pumped into a storage tank with electricity from solar panels during the day, and is used for irrigation through drip tape during the evenings and early mornings. The innovation aims to increase the productivity of farming, decrease the use of fossil fuels for pumps and save water with drip technology. This leads to the fact that farmers can grow crops that have better quality even during dry season.

“We are seeing farmers lives improve in ways we have never seen before: in some cases, farmers are going from making $600 per acre per year to making over $20,000 per acre per year” saysSamir Ibrahim, co-founder and CEO of SunCulture.

The irrigation system is a ”package solution” and SunCulture offers agronomic counselling and maintenance of the system in order to maximise the benefits of every sold kit. The innovator therefore educates local technicians that are mainly newly graduated engineers or students majoring in agriculture that perform the counselling and maintenance work. Samir Ibrahim says that

“Our success in the early days of SunCulture stemmed from our understanding that our customers held the key to our success, so we worked with them to design a solution for them”.

An Inspiring Collaboration

The biggest challenge for SunCulture is to try to lower the price of the irrigation system and find reasonable financing options to be able to reach out to the small scale farmers that are Sida’s target group. By developing a collaboration with Islamic Relief Kenya, SunCulture has succeeded with spreading the irrigation system and has made it available for more small scale farmers and many of the poorest farmers in Kenya.

Islamic Relief Kenya uses SunCulture’s innovation and is working with extending it to farmer cooperatives in Mandera that is located in a dry and conflict prone area on the Somali border where 88% live below the poverty line. The cooperatives consist of poor small scale farmers that buy the irrigation system collectively. The organisation is also working with training farmers and distribution of the irrigation system. In this way they target the poorest farmers that cannot afford the product and link farmer cooperatives to training and financial service providers, who in turn offer loans to cooperative members so that they can buy the irrigation system together.

“Our work has been a journey; we started working with farmers as pure pastoralists and introduced them to agriculture as an alternative source of livelihood. Now we are at a stage of introducing an innovation that we anticipate will commercialise agriculture in Mandera, improve the productivity of the farmers and increase their farm incomes”, says Stephen Omware, Livelihoods Coordinator at Islamic Relief Kenya.

Challenges within Gender Equality Work

SunCulture’s and Islamic Relief Kenya’s ambition is to include women in their work, which is something that has proven to be difficult. SunCulture’s business model includes the whole value chain and targets smaller farm plots that have the potential to benefit women and small scale farmers, yet it’s often more difficult for women to access financial resources and to take loans in order to fund larger investments in their farming. Both women and men work with farming in Mandera, however women’s participation in the farmer cooperatives is often limited.

The balance of power between women and men is still unequal because of cultural norms, which lead to the fact that women rarely participate in the cooperatives’ meetings or in decision processes. The continued gender equality work is therefore a great challenge for the innovators.

Reflections from the innovators

Both SunCulture and Islamic Relief Kenya have positive experiences from their collaboration.

“Islamic Relief Kenya has years of experience working with and mobilizing smallholder farmers in Mandera. We are confident that their experience in the region paired with our technical and solution-based expertise will be a model that can be transferred to rural communities across the continent, giving these communities access to high-quality irrigation solutions for the first time” says Samir Ibrahim.

Stephen Omware agrees and says that

“This is a unique collaboration between a NGO and a private commercial enterprise (profit making) that works towards creating sustainable economic development through improving service delivery and ensure demand driven agricultural production.”

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