SISTEM one-on-one from Nairobi, Kenya with Mr. Samir Ibrahim, Co-Founder and CEO of SunCulture: An innovative sustainable energy company providing solar-powered irrigation systems and agricultural extension services.
Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the path that led you to SunCulture.
Ibrahim: My name is Samir Ibrahim, I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of SunCulture. I studied finance and international business at NYU’s Stern School of Business, but my interest in the relationship between economic development and the private sector started long before I went to university. My family is from East Africa, so I’ve always been passionate about economic development and the ways in which the private sector can contribute to the livelihoods of the world’s most undeserved. So when my friend and Co-Founder, Charlie Nichols, approached me with the idea to use renewable energy for productive use in East Africa, specifically for agriculture, it was a perfect fit.
We decided to put the company through the NYU Social Venture competition, and we got second place. To prove to everyone that this would work, we left NYC and went to Nairobi to launch a pilot. The pilot worked, and on October 1, 2012 we landed in Nairobi with one-way tickets.
Q: Tell us about SunCulture: What is it and who created it? What programs and services do you offer? Who do you serve?
Ibrahim: SunCulture designs and sells solar-powered irrigation systems and agricultural extension services that make it cheaper and easier for farmers to grow high-value fresh fruits and vegetables. SunCulture's AgroSolar Irrigation Kit combines the cost-effectiveness of solar-powered water pumping with the efficiency of low-pressure drip irrigation to distribute water and fertilizer directly to crop roots, resulting in yield increases of up to 300% and water savings of up to 80%. The payback to the farmer is one three-month growing season — based on fuel, fertilizer, and labour savings, and crop yield increases.
Q: Can you please elaborate on “The Problem” and “The Solution” according to SunCulture?
Ibrahim: Kenya has 5.4 million hectares of arable land. 83% of this land is unsuitable for rain fed agriculture, leaving it in need of irrigation and pumping technology, yet only 4% of this land is under irrigation. Diesel, electric, and treadle pumps are presently available in the market, but the effectiveness of these technologies is constrained by high input costs and labor inefficiencies.
SunCulture's AgroSolar Irrigation Kit combines the cost-effectiveness of solar-powered water pumping with the efficiency of low-pressure drip irrigation to distribute water. The system pumps water to an elevated tank using the power of the sun, and uses gravity to release water through drip irrigation, delivering water directly to crop roots, resulting in yield increases of up to 300% and water savings of up to 80%.
But that’s all on the tech side. When designing and building products for the world’s poorest people, it’s easy to forget that technology is just one part of the solution, that people need structures and systems that help them get maximal use from these products. So we do all of the installation, training, after-sales support, and agronomy support in-house, and we connect farmers to market and financing when they need it. SunCulture approaches farmers as a one-stop shop, giving them what they need to grow more while spending less.
Q: What challenges does SunCulture currently face and what is next for SunCulture?
Ibrahim: The primary barrier to adoption of solar-powered irrigation systems amongst smallholder farmers is affordability. In order to further improve access to this technology, SunCulture will pilot "solar-powered irrigation as a service" – leveraging mobile-money and pay-as-you-go (PAYG) technology – in 2016. This will give highly undeserved farmers the opportunity to transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming.
Q: Finally, in your opinion, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law in the socio-economic development of Kenya?
Ibrahim: I think the socio-economic development of Kenya will be determined by how the government harnesses international funding for development (energy, infrastructure, and agriculture) and how the youth of Kenya will eventually allocate that capital. Responsible capital allocation will only be achievable if the decision-makers of tomorrow understand the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. STEM education is a path towards that understanding.