Harnessing Solar Energy to Improve the Fortunes of the African Farmer

Published May. 3, 2018

By Ben Oduor for East African Business Times

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.

Despite being one of leading contributors to Africa’s GDP, the region’s agricultural sector has been ailing. Millions of farmers struggle with poor yields and improving profits from their produce. 29-year-old American duo, Samir Ibrahim and Charles Nichols, have invented a solar-powered water pump to address some of the perennial agricultural challenges. One of the entrepreneurs, Samir Ibrahim, discussed with EABT writer Ben Oduor about their invention and its impacts. Here’s the excerpt.

EABT: Who is Samir Ibrahim and what does he do?

Samir: I’m a co-founder and the CEO of SunCulture, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. SunCulture helps smallholder farming households become more productive by selling them affordable solar powered water pumps and customized irrigation systems, bundled with ongoing support and financing. Prior to SunCulture, I studied Finance and International Business at NYU’s Undergraduate Stern School of Business and joined PwC’s Financial Services, Structured Products, and Real Estate Group. My family migrated from India to East Africa in 1850 and I’ve always been passionate about the private sector’s role in economic development. I feel very lucky to be living in a place where I can learn so much about my family’s history.

EABT: What does the latest accolade as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 mean to you and your enterprise?

Samir: It’s an honor and a direct reflection of the work that everyone at SunCulture is doing. I’m really grateful that our work is being celebrated around the world.

EABT: What is the technology behind SunCulture, and what inspired the venture?

Samir: SunCulture was founded on the triple-bottom-line idea that profit generation should be complemented by environmental and social value creation and that visionary companies can create all three simultaneously at massive scale without sacrificing financial returns. More than 3/4 of the world’s poorest and hungriest people grow their very tool for escape from poverty and hunger- food. SunCulture’s mission and vision is not just to make these small-scale farmers food secure but also successful in business and in their personal lives. We do this by providing tailor made products – solar powered irrigation solutions, services and capital.

EABT: How was the situation like in Kenya at inception and how far is the idea?

Samir: Charlie and I started off by selling irrigation kits out of our living room. We had mountains of drip tape stored all over the place. It was quite a funny site. Now we have an office which is bursting at the seams as more and more brilliant minds join the team. We’re lucky to be working with farmers across the continent, continuing to develop solutions that help these famers build resilience for themselves and their families.

EABT: What role has SunCulture played in boosting farmers’ yields in light of perennial epidemics such as drought, famine and crop diseases that have for long battered East Africa’s food basket?

Samir: Farmers face many challenges that are rooted in centuries of neglect and lack of infrastructure, let alone the challenges that come with climate change. Last year, we witnessed firsthand the impact that climate change can have on these farmers, as devastating drought crippled East Africa’s agricultural sector and placed close to 20 million people at risk of starvation.

From installing Somalia’s largest irrigation project to setting up irrigation solutions in Kakuma Refugee Camp to working with farmers in the driest parts of Kenya, our work focuses on helping farmers become resilient to the many external obstacles they face.

EABT: What are the cost benefit analyses of your technology to the over 70 per cent Kenyan population who rely on agriculture as a source of livelihood?

Samir: Our model focuses on farmer-led re-invention, so we build solutions for our customers with our customers. As a result, we have designed the most relevant, highest-quality, affordable solar irrigation solution for smallholder farmers. It’s called the RainMaker. It pulls water from up to 100 metres, has a battery back-up so farmers can use it on cloudy days, and is “smart” so we can remotely see the health of the system and send a technician to fix it before it breaks. Additionally, we offer this to our Pay-As-You-Grow financing platform to make our solution affordable to more farmers. Our customers, whether they purchase on cash or on Pay-As-You-Grow, recoup their investment in less than a year.

EABT: Which are some of the critical partnerships you’ve made since founding the business and how have they contributed to its growth?

Samir: Our growth lies in the people that are committed to our mission of increasing smallholder farmers’ productivity. Partnering with institutions like Microsoft, Shell Foundation, and other investors has been a great advantage in developing our service offering and technology. However, the most important partnerships that we make are with our customer and our employees – they drive everything that we do.

EABT: Agro-Solar Irrigation Technology has so far been credited with more than 10 local and international awards and accolades. What has it taken to bag these noteworthy credits?

Samir: It has taken not focusing on awards and accolades! Directing your focus, resources, and energy to solving a big problem and building a business is the most important thing. The impact you create then attracts recognition.

EABT: As one of Africa’s budding agro-preneurs, what best remedy can you prescribe to the continent’s recurrent food insecurity challenges?

Samir: It’s going to take many remedies by many people working on food challenges to make a significant difference. That being said, access to water and to high-quality nutritious food are basic human rights. With the right kind of tools, knowledge and financing, food security will not be an issue.Every farmer will not only be food secure, but will also increase their wealth. The key is bundling the right kinds of tools, knowledge, and financing. Full-stack problems need full-stack solutions, that is to say every part of the agriculture value chain is disconnected in the markets that we work in, so we need to address our customers’ challenges by connecting the value chain for them. For example, alongside financing our products for farmers, we ensure our farmers are successful by providing training on correct use of inputs and guidance on harvest and storage methods as part of the installation service. We also provide onsite technical support within 48-hours when needed. My advice to anyone that is looking to tackle one of the many opportunities along the agriculture value chain is to solve it from end-to-end for a farmer. If we get more businesses solving problems in this way, then we can tackle the continent’s recurrent food insecurity challenges.

EABT: Which key challenges has the enterprise grappled with and how have you mitigated them?

Samir: Making solar powered irrigation truly affordable for smallholder farmers. We have managed to reduce the cost of an acre of solar powered irrigation by 90%.

At SunCulture, all of our products are designed in close collaboration with our end users. Through a rigorous and continuous data collection process, we discover our customers’ biggest challenges and validate our proposed solutions. With a streamlined feedback channel, we ensure our products meet our customers’ requirements. We then focus our efforts on R&D and supply chain optimization to make those solutions cost-effective.

EABT: What does the future look like for SunCulture?

Samir: We’re going to continue to deliver a high-quality customer experience to more farmers around the world. We’re allocating a lot of our resources towards leveraging technology to deliver tailored recommendations to our customers based on what’s happening on their farm, with their products, and with the weather. This is the future of farming.

Related News & Events: 
Jul. 30, 2018

Great news for SunCulture is also great news for smallholder farmers in Africa! SunCulture CEO Samir Ibrahim is looking forward to a productive partnership with the EDF Group, and to working together to increase rural household productivity across the African continent.

Jul. 30, 2018

EDF's investment in SunCulture means increased sales capacity and expanded access to farmer credit in Kenya, and the ability to expand into West Africa. SunCulture's products have already saved almost two billion liters of water, and have increased farmers' incomes while cutting their costs.

Jul. 24, 2018

Congratulations to SunCulture! They've closed an investment round with the EDF Group, one of the world’s largest electric utility companies and a global leader in low-carbon energy. EDF joins SunCulture’s existing institutional investors, Energy Access Ventures and Partners Group.