David Brazier/IWMI

Solar for all: Enhancing access to affordable and sustainable solar-powered irrigation

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Around 2 billion people globally are food insecure. Yet strategies to reduce chronic hunger and improve nutrition and livelihoods are limited by risks related to climate change and ecological resilience.

Irrigation has long been used to increase food production, and recent studies suggest that irrigation in severely food insecure areas offers multiple pathways to improved nutrition. Off-grid solar irrigation, in particular, has immense potential to provide a cost-effective and sustainable energy source to secure food production and sustain livelihoods in line with multiple Sustainable Development Goals. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the market for small solar water pumps is expected to triple over the next decade, driven by income growth and falling pump prices. At the same time, however, the lack of an integrated approach to the expansion of solar irrigation remains a hurdle to its appropriate adoption in many places.

Achieving the potential of solar irrigation requires improved policies and institutions to coordinate implementation across numerous stakeholders, objectives and approaches. A new WLE-funded study published in Energy Policy – 'Solar for all: A framework for inclusive and environmentally sustainable solar irrigation for smallholder agriculture' – uses cases and observations from the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia to propose a framework to support policy, regulation and implementation for solar irrigation investments that are inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

The framework focuses on two dimensions:

  1. enhanced access to affordable solar irrigation (ensuring equal benefits for different groups of smallholder farmers); and
  2. improved environmental sustainability through integrated water and land management.

Tailored finance

In the first dimension, appropriate financial products as well as economic incentives are needed to promote solar irrigation as an accessible, equitable and sustainable investment. In many regions, financial innovations that leverage information and communication technology are being rolled out to increase access to solar irrigation.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, solar pump suppliers are filling gaps in credit markets by providing 'pay-as-you-go' or 'pay-as-you-own' financial instruments for solar irrigation pumps. Farmers make an initial down-payment followed by monthly or seasonal payments.

To reduce company risks related to offering pumps on credit, suppliers use algorithms and apps to assess credit worthiness in markets that lack formal credit-ranking systems. In addition, payments are often accepted through mobile money platforms, reducing the transaction costs for the suppliers and their clients. Through the USAID-funded Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation, IWMI is currently working with pump suppliers in Ghana and Ethiopia to refine their credit-scoring approach and enhance access for more women and resource-poor farmers.

Access to supply chains and markets

While access to affordable technology and finance is needed to purchase solar pumps, equitable and inclusive access to agricultural input and output markets is equally important to enable a decent return on investment for farmers and others in the equipment supply chain.

Moreover, in areas where rural societies are marked by inequalities, it is important to understand the demand and benefits for women and youth in irrigated agricultural value chains. Marginalized or vulnerable communities face financial and infrastructure access barriers to irrigation technology in general, and this is no different in solar pump markets.

Improved environmental sustainability

Closely linked to the framework's first dimension, the second dimension focuses on the environmental sustainability of solar irrigation. In particular, there is a need for integrated water and land management supported by methodologies and tools that provide a better understanding of the availability, variability and vulnerability of water resources. Translating this information into policy plans and interventions to scale up solar investments could enhance sustainability, especially if accompanied by the right choice of crops, best management practices and greater on-farm water efficiency.

However, many caveats remain. Solar irrigation is expanding, and there are significant areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America where there is plenty of water available to absorb this expansion. However, appropriate and relevant regulatory, legislative and institutional arrangements that can minimize potential negative social and environmental externalities and trade-offs are largely missing.

More research and analysis remain to be done to ensure the smallholder irrigation 'revolution' does not leave anyone behind or deplete natural resources. Evidence-based best practices on solar irrigation solutions at the farm, community and watershed scales, founded on principles of natural resource sustainability and equity, will bring us closer to realizing the benefits from a potentially disruptive, transformative technology.

Authors: Nicole Lefore, Director, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation, Alvar Closas, Senior Groundwater Strategist at NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, and Petra Schmitter, Research Group Leader – Sustainable and Resilient Food Production Systems, IWMI

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDGISFCDOSDC, Sida and others.