From Hearing Aids to Farming, Solar Energy Powers Climate Innovation

Published: Oct. 19, 2015

By Magdalena Mis for Thompson Reuters Foundation

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.

Set against the might of climate change, can small measures like solar-powered batteries or drip irrigation make a difference?

LONDON, Oct. 19—Innovations involving both are among 10 finalists in the 2015 Sustainia Award, an international competition for projects with a potential to address the impact of climate change.

One aims to light up dark corners of Africa through solar power systems paid for via mobile phones.

As an alternative to greenhouse gas-emitting kerosene and diesel generators, the off-grid systems, made by Germany-based Mobisol, are connected to a battery and aspiring entrepreneurs can even pocket some money by selling the excess energy.

For farmers in Kenya struggling with low and unpredictable rainfall and the high cost of fuel to power irrigation pumps, U.S.-based SunCulture offers solar-powered drip irrigation systems, which deliver water directly to the roots of the plans.

The company, which has already installed more than 250 such systems, says they allow water savings of up to 80 percent and yield gains of up to 300 percent.

“To date there has been too much talk and too little action (about sustainability and climate change),” said Esben Alslund-Lanthen, a researcher at Denmark-based sustainability think-tank Sustainia which organised the awards.

“We need people to actually take action on these issues if the world is to be a better place in the future. We hope to be able to inspire other people to take up these ideas and bring them to use in their own context.”

Other innovations include 3D visualisations for cities showing their solar energy potential, “plastic banks” offering cash for plastic waste, a solar-powered hearing aid and subscription-based leasing of children’s organic clothing.

The award committee is chaired by the former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. Winners will be announced on Dec. 6 during a U.N. conference in Paris in December which will aim to create a new global deal to curb climate change.

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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. 

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SunCulture recently introduced its new solar water pump system which it hopes will transform agricultural output in water-scarce regions. The pump is both low-maintenance and highly efficient, enabling farmers to grow high-value fruits and vegetables while dramatically boosting profitability.

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The SunCulture Facebook Group was founded by a farmer named Hannah Muricho, so that she could share information and learn from other users. Facebook recently invited her to participate in a gathering of group leaders from some of Kenya’s largest and most diverse Facebook Group communities.