From Bamboo to Solar Irrigation, Entrepreneurs Eye New Markets

Published: Jun. 6, 2016

By Niina Heikkinen for ClimateWire

About Powering Agriculture

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.

Samir Ibrahim sat alongside other agricultural entrepreneurs in a long row of chairs, ready for the investor "speed dating" to being.

With just five minutes to speak, Ibrahim explained that his company, SunCulture, currently provides drip irrigation kits equipped with solar-powered water pumps to 600 smallholder farmers primarily in Kenya, as well as some customers in South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique. The SunCulture AgroSolar Irrigation System cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions by trading in diesel-powered water pumps for solar energy, and on labor for farmers who were previously carrying water by hand.

"We're creating the first pay-as-you-go irrigation system. It's combining technology and service," he said.

This was the first day of the U.S. Agency for International Development's two-day Ag Innovation Investment Summit, where entrepreneurs presented their latest strategies for addressing food insecurity, water access and energy needs in developing countries. The goal: to help them turn local and regional projects into sustainable business ideas that would have a much broader and long-lasting reach in low-income farming communities around the world.

SunCulture was among 54 companies and nonprofits looking for greater investments in technologies ranging from "smart tractors" for more efficient cooperative planting to drones outfitted with infrared cameras that allow farmers to map crop health. Each of the participants was part of one of three USAID partner programs: Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and two Grand Challenge programs, Powering Agriculture and Securing Water for Food.

The event was co-sponsored by the governments of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as South Africa's Department of Science and Technology, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. and Duke Energy Corp.

Ibrahim said he isn't sure yet how SunCulture's pay-as-you-go system would work, and he attended the USAID summit looking for outside investors to help the company make the transition. The idea is that farmers will pay a monthly fee for access to irrigation services, but because farmers make their income after they harvest, Ibrahim suggested that the fee for much of the year could be nominal.

"We need to run some pilots; we need to know for down payments, how much do you charge, how do you assess farmers' credit?" he said.

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By working alongside farmers, and collaborating with established distribution partners who understand the market and the government, SunCulture has secured their footing in Kenya. Their success there has fueled plans to expand to other countries and regions over the next few years.