Solar-powered irrigation keeps harvests high

Zimbabwe: Solar-powered irrigation keeps harvests high during drought

Despite the worsening drought that has dried many of the fields that surround her farm in southern Zimbabwe, Mpokiseng Moyo continues to grow winter wheat to support her family.

For irrigation, she used to rely on diesel pumps that often broke or ran out of fuel. And decreased rainfall has made hydro power less reliable. Now, Mrs. Moyo uses solar energy for irrigation, and has increased her wheat harvest.

Mrs. Moyo farms at Rustlers Gorge in Mashaba, about 130 kilometres southeast of Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe.

She says, “Before being connected to the solar grid, we irrigated our crops using diesel pumps and travelled as far as Gwanda [more than 100 kilometres away] to buy diesel for the pumps.”

But things have changed for the better. In 2015, Mashaba town installed a solar power station that has helped improve farming in many nearby communities.
Mrs. Moyo is one of 41 farmers, of whom 26 are women, who collectively own the solar-powered irrigation scheme that serves more than 100 acres in Rustlers Gorge.

Mrs. Moyo says the new solar mini-grid has helped many farmers. She explains, “The [diesel] pumps broke down many times, affecting productivity. But with solar energy we are able to farm throughout the year without any hassles.”

The European Union, the OPEC Fund for International Development, and the Global Environment Facility funded the off-grid power system as part of a drive to promote access to electricity in rural areas.

The system includes 400 solar panels that provide nearly 100 kilowatts of reliable power. That’s enough to run two irrigation schemes covering 183 acres of farmland, as well as a primary school, clinic, and several shops. The community selected a board of trustees who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the mini-grid. Other community members learned to operate and maintain it.

Thomas Makhalima is a councillor in Mashaba. He says about 10,000 people benefit directly from the clean power grid in the drought-affected area. He adds, “We depend a lot on government relief aid. But the food donations have lessened because some people can [now] feed themselves through the irrigation schemes.”
Mr. Makhalima says an additional irrigation project will soon be connected to the solar grid.

The biggest test for the Mashaba community will be keeping their solar grid functioning. Community members are not currently paying for electricity while they wait for prices to be determined. Their fees will be used to maintain the grid.

Joseph Ncube is the secretary of the Mashaba Board of Trustees, and a spokesperson for the grid project. He says that farmers are happy to pay to keep the power on.

Mr. Ncube explains, “We’ve had meetings with farmers and they are already putting aside some grain reserves so that when they are asked to start paying for electricity, they are ready.”

Thanks to the solar-powered irrigation scheme, Mrs. Moyo grows more wheat and earns more money. She now has enough income to provide for her family and send her children to school.