A recent study by IIASA has shown that independent solar photovoltaic irrigation systems could meet more than one-third of the water needs for crops on small farms in Africa. Sustainability of solar irrigation in Sub-Saharan small farms could greatly alleviate the challenges experienced by small-scale farmers, who, in the region, are responsible for 80% of agricultural production. The study highlights that it is important to manage land and water resources effectively in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of such systems. Open-source modelling framework improves credibility and practicality, thereby guiding public and private investors in transformative solutions.
A recent study reveals that independent solar photovoltaic irrigation systems hold great potential in fulfilling over one-third of the water requirements for crops in small-scale farms across sub-Saharan Africa. Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa account for a staggering 80% of agricultural production. However, they encounter significant obstacles that prevent them from maximizing farm productivity, leading to a considerable yield gap.
The main cause of low productivity and food insecurity in Africa is the extensive practice of rain-fed agriculture, which accounts for 90% of all cropland. This method is affected by unpredictable and erratic rainfall patterns. In addition, the low degree of mechanization worsens the situation. The persistent poverty trap has been further strengthened by cyclical famines that are putting local development opportunities at risk.
A group of international researchers, led by IIASA, has recently conducted a study, under the research project Renewables for African Agriculture (RE4AFAGRI). It has successfully created an innovative open-source modelling framework. This framework utilizes a wide range of datasets, including those related to agriculture, water, energy, expenses, and infrastructure.
The framework was utilized to compute the specific irrigation requirements in local areas, evaluate the optimal dimensions and expenses of vital technology elements such as water pumps, solar PV modules, batteries, and irrigation systems. Moreover, it thoroughly examined the economic potential and long-lasting effects on sustainable development that arise from the adoption of solar pumps. With this, aiming to provide solar powered irrigation on African sub-Saharan farms.
Giacomo Falchetta researcher in the Integrated Assessment and Climate Change Research Group of the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program, is the lead author of the study. He explains, “We estimate an average discounted investment requirement of US$3 billion per year, generating potential profits of over US$5 billion per year from increased yields to smallholder farmers, as well as significant food security and energy access co-benefits.”
“Reducing the irrigation gap with cost-effective solar pumps can boost food production and improve nutrition, contributing to SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Furthermore, surplus electricity generated by these systems could serve other energy needs, aligning with SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy),” added Giacomo Falchetta.
The study’s authors highlight the tremendous significance of business models and investment incentives, crop prices, and the costs of PV and batteries in determining the economic viability and profitability of solar irrigation.
“Using a business model that spreads out all initial expenses more than doubles the number of workable solar irrigation systems, presenting a huge potential to achieving the SDGs in the process,” explains Shonali Pachauri, Leader of IIASA Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group.
Shonali Pachauri further added, “On the other hand, the study highlights that without strong land and water resource management infrastructure and governance, a widespread deployment of solar pumps may drive an unsustainable exploitation of water sources and reduce environmental flows. Consequently, both investing in infrastructure, such as reservoirs for water management during seasonal variations, and enhancing water resource governance, are critical factors for ensuring the sustainability of widespread solar pump deployment.”
The novel and comprehensive open-source modelling framework, along with the analysis, provides valuable support to both public and private participants working in the water-energy-food-economy nexus. Sustainability of solar irrigation in Sub-Saharan small farms along with this framework aids in identifying economically viable regions and accurately quantifying the potential net economic gain that could result from the implementation of solar irrigation systems. With such robust analysis and evidence, investment in the sector is more likely to flourish.