When most people think of solar power, they think of solar panels placed on rooftops to create electricity for residential or commercial use. But there is also another critical purpose — to mine and distribute water to boost productivity.
It’s especially relevant in Africa, where agriculture is the main industry for most countries there. Yet, their output is suffering because because the fields do not get the proper amount of irrigation. Through the use of solar pumps, though, they are able to double or triple their yields — economic gains that have an enormous ripple effect while improving the lifestyles of many Africans.
“Farmers who were growing one season per year can now grow three times per year,” says Yariv Cohen, the founder and chief executive officer of Ignite Power, which is a British-American company, in an interview. “Solar pumps lead to more efficiencies, which leads to more employment and greater disposable income. Disposable income increases by 20% to 30%.”
Simply, water is an essential element of life, especially clean water. And while the developed world may take this for granted, the emerging economies understand implicitly the value of this commodity. Solar pumps are an ecologically viable option to extract water and to irrigate crops and provide potable drinking water.
According to Climatetechwiki, a typical solar-powered pumping system consists of a solar panel array that powers an electric motor, which in turn powers a surface pump. The water is often pumped from the ground or stream into a storage tank that is used to water crops.
For context, agriculture employs 60% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa and it is responsible for 60% of the gross domestic product, or economic output. That is far less productive than most other global regions because, only a fraction of the farmland is getting permanent irrigation: 6% across the African continent, although that number is 4% in Sub-Saharan Africa.
With the vast majority of the farm lands going without irrigation, most African farmers rely on rainwater for the large lands, with manual efforts on specific, small areas, says Cohen. He adds that if solar pumps are used and the land is irrigated regularly, the farmers can at least double their production compared to lands that are irrigated by rain and by manual irrigation.
“First we go into a country to connect all the homes, says Cohen. “Then we use the same solar panels to irrigate fields.
“The solar pumps enable local farmers to utilize Africa’s most accessible resource, the sun, in order to get their lands irrigated,” he adds. “The pump runs on solar power, perfectly fit the needs of rural farmers who live far away from the grid. Using this power, the pump allows a large area to be irrigated regularly, dramatically improving the yield in the most affordable way possible.”
Roughly 600 million people are living in Africa who don’t have reliable access to electricity. That, of course, is impairing the continent’s economic health. And while expanding the electrical grid is an ideal solution, the reality is that geographical and financial considerations are preventing that. In Ignite’s case, it is also focused on providing off-grid solutions to rural African communities in Rwanda, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Mozambique.
Right now, Cohen says that his company has 1.1 million customers on the continent, leaving enormous room for growth — not just for his enterprise but also for other providers of off-grid solar power in Africa. Cohen’s immediate goal is to hit 500 million homes. “What we have done is to outsource panels and the storage,” says Cohen. “We have a software that can put it all together.
“We work with banks to come up with the best solutions,” he adds. “We partner with the government to come up with the best remedy for the country. We provide the operating system that connects it all. We are the ‘Internet of Solar.’ We connect any manufacturer to our system. We connect payment providers too. We create a glue that connects all suppliers together so that many people can join in.”
Consider the case of two Rwandan women, Tharcille Tuyisenge and Grace Uwas, who are 20 and 23, respectively: After being awarded a grant by the Master Card Foundation, they began with working Ignite Power and went on to purchase home solar systems for families in the Rwamagana district so that those people could have safe and sustainable electricity. At present, the two women have installed 25 solar systems and more could soon be on the way.
Electricity is the lifeblood for any community. And it’s game-changing for developing countries in Africa to get access — not just to keep the lights on but to also improve their agricultural productivity.
THIS IS A PART OF A RECENT SERIES IN WHICH THE AUTHOR IS FOCUSING ON AFRICA. SEE ALSO: