A New Kind Of Irrigation Could Boost African Farming—And It's Powered By The Sun

Published: Nov. 20, 2015

By Ben Schiller for Co.Exist

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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.

SunCulture provides solar-powered drip irrigation technology to increase crop yields in dry places—and importantly, it trains farmers how to use it.

Pioneered in Israel, drip irrigation saves water and fertilizer by delivering droplets of water to the base of plants. But off-the-grid farmers aren’t able to use the technology without expensive diesel generators.

Solar power is the obvious solution. And, as SunCulture, in Nairobi, Kenya, is proving, that doesn’t have to be expensive for farmers. The startup, founded by NYU graduate Samir Ibrahim his friend Charlie Nichols, sells affordable solar-powered irrigation products and a one-stop-shop of services to farmers in Kenya.

Kenya has 5.4 million hectares of arable land, but only 17% of that is suitable for rain-fed agriculture; the rest needs to be irrigated. Petrol, electric, and manual systems are all available but are "constrained by high input costs and labor inefficiencies."

SunCulture designs and installs irrigation tube networks and solar panels on farms (typically a three-panel 300 watt system on a one-acre lot). Then, it offers training and brings in agronomists to maximize yields. The company has set up 350 systems in Kenya, and recently put down its first system in Ethiopia. It claims to increase crop yields by as much as 300% and produce water savings of 80%, compared to other local farmers.

SunCulture sells its “one-stop” package for $3,000 per acre—an investment it says farmers can make back within one growing season. “Our approach is not just to focus on the technology,” Ibrahim says. “Even if you have a useful technology, you still have to build systems around that.”

The startup doesn’t yet offer its own financing, though that is definitely the plan. The question is just how to structure the repayments, given that farmers have little money at beginning of the season and lots of it at harvest time.

Rather than simply be an installer, in time, Ibrahim wants SunCulture to develop an irrigation-as-a-service business model—an irrigation subscription, if you will. That should help match farmers’ cash flow cycle better and also help SunCulture expand more rapidly.

In any case, the combination of drip irrigation and solar seems like a good one for farmers who can’t rely on the rain.

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