The use of solar energy to power groundwater pumps that farmers in drought-ridden, off-grid regions in Africa and elsewhere can employ to irrigate fields has been heralded by various experts as potentially revolutionary. Farmers using such technology agree its benefits are significant for their lives and livelihoods but insist more must be done to spread the word about the technology, how farmers can access it and funding options available to enable the installation of solar pumps.

Irrigation is limited across Africa. Globally, 20% of cropland is irrigated, but this figure falls to just 5% in Africa, shows data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Calls to increase irrigation across the African continent are growing in an attempt to improve food security as the impacts of climate change become a daily reality, write researchers in a paper published in Communications Earth and Environment, a Nature group journal, in February 2023.

Irrigation from groundwater is a promising solution as, unlike surface water, it does not need to be treated, say the researchers from the University of Paris. Today, most rural groundwater pumping in Africa is undertaken by community hand pumps, but “installation and maintenance issues” mean the technology is not as widespread as it should be, state Simon Meunier and colleagues. “The Sustainable Development Goals call for a higher level of service, with safe water available reliably at individual households.”

“Pumping systems powered by photovoltaic energy are a promising solution to improve water access in many off-grid areas without importantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions,” say the researchers. “They are already economically competitive in many contexts; technological advances have improved their longevity and local case studies have shown promising results.”

Solar pumps: market potential

The non-profit Power for All campaign believes solar water pumps have the potential to offer farmers in Africa and countries elsewhere struggling with off-grid access to water some easy wins in the form of a reliable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly water source for irrigation; greater access to sanitary drinking and cooking water; less time and effort spent collecting water; and increased energy access and reduced energy poverty.

In 2020, the global solar water pump market was worth $2.38bn. It is predicted to reach $5.64bn by 2028, says Power for All.

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During a recent webinar hosted by the organisation, farmers sharing their experiences of solar water pumps were enthusiastic about the technology. They suggested, however, that it has little chance of becoming more mainstream without better information campaigns.

“My crops are now very fine and I have no problems,” said Nelson Kikungwe, a farmer from Uganda, during the webinar. Since installing his pump and being able to irrigate his crops, Kikungwe has seen “much improvement” in his production. In addition to using the pump to spray his crops, he also uses it to “pump water for my community and my family”. He only came across the system by accident, however, when “searching on Facebook”.

Edonia Consolate farms in Arua, a city north-west of the Ugandan capital Kampala. She tells a similar story. In 2022, she opted to purchase a solar water pump to increase production by irrigating the tomatoes she grows in her greenhouse to sell to her neighbours, Arua’s main market, hotels and small markets in nearby trading centres, she told Energy Monitor. Consolate also teaches agriculture in a local secondary school.

There was always too much rain or too much sun. With a solar water pump, water is there every day and I register some improvement in my production.”

Edonia Consolate, a farmer in Arua, a city north-west of the Ugandan capital Kampala

The solar system cost Consolate $1,200, which she paid for with a low-interest loan that she pays back every month, but she is in no doubt that the outlay was worth it. Previously, her access to water was intermittent. “I was relying on national water supply and collecting rainwater, but at times there are no rains and at times the national water supply is not reliable,” says Consolate. “I was discouraged and almost gave up. There was always too much rain or too much sun. With a solar water pump, water is there every day and I register some improvement in my production.”

One of Consolate’s neighbours “whom I linked up with the company from which I obtained my pump” has followed suit. “Others are interested, but they don’t have the capacity to buy one.” In general, though, Consolate says there is a lack of information about solar pumps. “More information should be provided to farmers,” she says. “Solar companies should advertise in the media and agricultural input dealers should organise farmers in groups and make them aware of the issue.”

Not a panacea

Solar groundwater pumps are, however, not a panacea, concludes a 2019 article by experts from the Global Green Growth Institute. It warns that their overuse could contribute to a “global groundwater crisis”. Since “solar pumping comes with almost no marginal costs, pumps can keep running even when water is not really needed or is used for low-value or water-loving crops”, they write. “If diesel and electric pumps have caused a crisis, solar has the potential to exacerbate it.”

One solution to reduce the risk of solar pumps depleting groundwater aquifers could be to link irrigation systems to electricity grids, where this is possible, suggest scientists from India. They cite a pilot scheme from their home country showing that when farmers were not connected to the grid, they used all their solar-generated energy for irrigating their own and their neighbours’ fields, but when connected to the grid, they sold as much power as they could and used only 35% of what they generated for pumping.

In this way, solar power sales could also “become an additional source of income for farmers, contribute to the national grid, and could reduce the current fossil fuel subsidies for irrigation,” conclude the Global Green Growth Institute experts.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after publication to correct the surname of Nelson Kikungwe.