Connecting producers to
markets with farmer-led
irrigation development:
Harnessing the power of water
and energy for food

The benefits of solar-based irrigation have long been recognized in countries where there is low access to the power grid. Once assessments of groundwater conditions show that increased irrigation can be achieved in a sustainable manner, next steps involve getting the right technologies to the right clients. This is often complicated by weak supply chains, high costs and a poor understanding of local market needs. IWMI is working to better scale the use of solar-based irrigation and as a result help strengthen food security and climate change resilience.

A recent IWMI study suggests that solar photovoltaic pumps offer an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to fossil fuel pumps. Private sector companies are eager to capitalize on this potential by expanding the market for small-scale solar-based irrigation. For these companies, serving small-scale irrigators, who have traditionally been perceived as high risk, can be profitable if the right business models are applied. However, the use of solar-based irrigation remains limited. IWMI and partners are working on new approaches to expand farmers’ access to solar-based irrigation that are appropriate in cost and scale.

Unlocking Ghana’s irrigation potential

With the abundance of sunshine in Ghana, solar-based irrigation offers smallholder farmers a promising alternative – but only if they can afford the initial investment. IWMI and its private sector partners co-developed and evaluated three possible business models that could address how farmers in Ghana’s Northern Region can cope with the high upfront costs of buying a pump.

In the first model, farmers purchase solar-powered pumps to access water for irrigation and other needs such as livestock watering, home gardening and domestic uses. Farmers can also sell water to neighbors. To make the pumps more affordable for this model of outright purchase, Pumptech Limited, a distributor of solar pumps manufactured by the German company LORENTZ, offers a pay-as-you-own credit scheme. This allows farmers to use the equipment while making regular payments until the total cost of the pump is paid off. Payments may be monthly, quarterly or scheduled around harvest times when cash flow is highest.

The second model is an alternative to individual ownership – a shared model where a group of farmers jointly own a solar-based irrigation system. Group members share the costs and risks as well as the benefits. For the model to work, the group must be cohesive, with clear rules on water-sharing mechanisms, maintenance responsibility, financial management and conflict resolution.

Under a third model, the solar system is owned, operated and maintained by a supplier or other third party. With the help of low-cost loans, partial grants and other financial incentives, entrepreneurs own and operate solar systems that provide irrigation water services to farmers for a fee. Entrepreneurs then use the fees from water sales to repay the loan.

Market knowledge is powering Africa’s solar irrigation sector

Data-driven tools are helping solar irrigation companies target their products and services to the right people, in the right way.

Making innovative water management and irrigation technologies available to farmers on a massive scale is crucial if we are to meet growing food demands and respond to climate change impacts. However, scaling efforts often fall short because they do not sufficiently consider the factors that determine whether a farmer will adopt these technologies. Solar irrigation companies can target their products and services by identifying and segmenting customer groups.

IWMI has been working to customize solar suitability maps to enable companies to identify where their marketing efforts should be directed. These maps pinpoint areas where smallholder farmers can invest in solar irrigation without depleting water resources. IWMI has refined the mapping framework to produce an online interactive tool for all of Africa.

IWMI has been working with solar manufacturing and distribution companies to demonstrate how the maps and tools can be customized and incorporated into companies’ sales zoning and marketing strategies. One of these companies, PEG Africa, used the maps to identify areas with the highest potential for its pumps, based on water resource type and depth, and adapted its marketing strategy to focus on these areas. In Mali, IWMI has been initiating customized solar mapping with other companies.

A new toolkit assists in systemic, adaptive scaling of farmer-led irrigation

Efforts to scale solar irrigation can often fall short because they do not sufficiently consider the complex realities of ‘softer elements’ such as people, supply chains, markets, policies and power relations.

In collaboration with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) projects, IWMI developed a toolkit to operationalize agricultural innovation scaling processes as an integral part of a systemic and adaptive approach to innovation.

The toolkit includes tools for enabling environment analysis, solar suitability mapping, engaging and matching to form the scaling partnership, market segmentation, client assessment, demand-supply linkages, multi-stakeholder dialogues, and private-sector-driven capacity development.

Aimed at implementers and private sector entities, the toolkit guides users in designing and facilitating partnerships and investments in scaling solar-based irrigation. For example, the enabling environment analysis tool guides a series of structured steps that lead to a clear understanding of the sets of policies, informal institutions, support services and other conditions that are important for irrigation systems. Based on a list of suggested questions, the analysis produces a country-specific report containing the information necessary to make recommendations for policy, successful scaling programs, and alternative scenarios to scale water solutions.

The tool was developed in tandem with the World Bank publication titled The Farmer-led Irrigation Development Guide: A What, Why and How-to for Intervention Design. Farmer-led irrigation development (FLID) – in which farmers take the lead in establishing, managing and improving irrigated agriculture – is widespread, but FLID growth is constrained and inclusion is limited. There is significant potential for interventions to catalyze FLID processes, and thereby transform food and water security and promote sustainable livelihoods. Solar irrigation could be a possible game-changer in FLID, and now with IWMI’s new toolkit, implementors can be deployed in a faster and smarter way.