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Boosting food security in sub-Saharan Africa through solar-powered irrigation systems

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

To ensure food security in sub-Saharan Africa is no easy task. It is even more difficult to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal on ending hunger. The region suffers from poor agricultural conditions. Partly as a result, malnutrition and poverty are common.

Most of the irrigated farms in the region rely on groundwater extraction or run-off river pumping systems. But a continuous decline in precipitation has affected both the quantity and quality of available water for irrigation, making local food markets more volatile and increasing the rate of malnutrition in poverty-stricken areas. Transporting water from the main streams to the fields is the major hurdle for smallholder farmers. However, low-cost and effective irrigation systems and technologies can help farmers to water their small plots and boost crop yields and incomes. Moreover, appropriate advanced small-scale irrigation technologies for horticultural crops (e.g. vegetables) can help to minimize risks and improve agricultural productivity and income.

To address these problems, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) joined forces with several national partners, including national agricultural research systems, in seven sub-Saharan African countries, such as Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, and launched in 2012 a project called “Improving Crop and Seed Production Systems Under Water/Irrigation Management in sub-Saharan Africa”.

Funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), the project was aimed at, among other things, developing a water resources database for West Africa; identifying technologies suitable for sub-Saharan African communities based on water availability, water quality, land and crop suitability, improved crop and seed production, and socioeconomic conditions; identifying packages of diversified crops under different water quality conditions and promoting multiple use of water; and enhancing research capabilities, agricultural extension services, and skills of rural farmers in water and crop management.

The project was successful in assisting farmers with adopting small-scale irrigation technologies and sustainable crop and seed production systems to increase farm productivity and year-round agricultural production.

As a follow-up to the project, Dr. Asad Sarwar Qureshi, a senior scientist in water and irrigation management at ICBA, carried out recently an analysis of other constraints that farmers face in terms of irrigation. He found that smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa experience regular interruptions while running the irrigation systems that use diesel, which is expensive and unaffordable for many, or electricity, which is not available in many parts of the region. He realized that it is necessary to explore the potential of solar-powered systems to sustainably expand irrigation to rural villages. In addition to powering irrigation pumps, solar systems can supply electricity for domestic use.

The region faces an acute shortage of electricity, mainly in rural areas where around 80 percent of the regions’ population live and of which 70 percent depend on food production through farming or livestock. A World Bank report shows that around 24 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity compared to 40 percent in other low-income countries.

To tackle this problem, ICBA partnered with the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) to implement a project called “Scaling up small-scale irrigation technologies for improving food security in sub-Saharan Africa”. 

Under this project, which began in January 2017, a low-cost irrigation system, known as the Californian irrigation system, was piloted among a group of smallholder farmers in Mali and Burkina Faso to grow vegetable crops. The system saves about 40 percent of irrigation water compared to traditional surface irrigation systems. More important, it runs on solar energy. The system was initially installed in an area of 2,500 sq. m. In Mali, the experimental site for the system is jointly managed by a group of 100 smallholder farmers, 77 women and 23 men. Each farmer in this area is allotted a small field and a schedule to use water through the irrigation system. For the first growing season, the farmers were provided with several types of gardening tools, including wheelbarrows, rakes, fittings, sprays, as well as agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and seeds. Seeing the benefits of the new system, other farmers in neighboring villages also got interested in the system and offered to introduce the system across all villages.

Similarly, in Burkina Faso, the system was installed in the Yako region and is shared by a group of five farmers. The system extracts groundwater from a shallow well for irrigation. During the first cropping season, farmers decided to grow vegetables such as onion, eggplant, tomato and sweet pepper. In the next growing season (beginning April 2018), ICBA plans to introduce more crops in the region, including some salt-tolerant crops.

These systems show great promise in improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the region. But adoption is key to success. A growing interest among farmers in the project looks like a very positive sign.