Solar-powered pumps pay for themselves quickly

Kenya: Solar-powered pumps pay for themselves quickly, but farmers need loans (GTM)

Joshua Okundi’s five-acre farm is his classroom. Mr. Okundi was a schoolteacher before he left his job in 2013 to become a farmer in Kendu, a village in western Kenya. Now he teaches a constant stream of farmers who visit his home seeking advice, seedlings, and a glimpse of technologies that can help them succeed.

Mr. Okundi first learned about solar-powered water pumps in 2015 from a US-funded project called Kenya Smallholder Solar Irrigation, or KSSI.

He says: “Whenever there is sun, you can pump water…. Whenever a generator is running [the pump], you have to use fuel. And the pump usually gets broken. And if the cost of the damage is too heavy, that will render most of the crops useless.”

This part of Kenya is typically hot and dry. Farming has always been a challenge, and climate change is making it even more difficult. Long, severe droughts are becoming the norm, and farmers can benefit from reliable irrigation.

Mr. Okundi now uses four pumps to irrigate his tomatoes and maize and to replenish a small pond where he raises tilapia and catfish. Besides watching the pumps in action, visiting farmers learn that a solar-powered pump can pay for itself quickly.

Jennifer Holthaus is a program officer with Winrock International, the NGO that implemented the KSSI project. She says farmers can use the increased income from irrigated farming to pay off the pump within one or two years.

Ms. Holthaus adds, “The farmer then has access to a device which increases her income two or three times for the next 15 to 20 years.” By reducing reliance on rainfall, pumps also lessen the risk of crop failures caused by drought.

But many African farmers can’t afford to pay US$300-$1,200 for a solar-powered pump, and Kenyan financial institutions have been slow to embrace full-scale lending. Ms. Holthaus explains: “Banks in Kenya are generally reluctant to invest in agriculture, and when they do provide a loan, they do so against collateral or a source of reliable income…. A schoolteacher can get a loan for the pump, but not a farmer.”

Juhudi Kilimo is a microfinance company that has provided more than 50,000 loans to Kenyan farmers. The company began investigating demand for solar pumps in 2014. It learned that buying a pump made financial sense only for commercial farmers, and that those who did borrow money were able to pay the loans back quickly.

Samwel Tobiko is a senior marketing officer at Juhudi Kilimo. He says: “For smallholder farmers who are doing an acre of tomatoes or vegetables, they are able to get back the investment in one and a half cropping cycles. That means they only need to use the pump less than a year and they are able to get back their capital.”

Co-operative Bank is the second-largest bank in Kenya, and was created to serve small-scale farmers. To encourage farmers to buy solar pumps, it will provide about 2,500 loans over the next three years. The bank will also help farmers improve their financial literacy.

A few kilometres from Joshua Okundi’s farm, Michael Ouma has planted more than 300 mango trees, passion fruit plants, and oranges, as well as pumpkins and other vegetables.

Mr. Ouma was one of Mr. Okundi’s students. But like so many other young Kenyan college graduates, it has been difficult for him to find a job.

These days, Mr. Ouma is considering a future as a farmer. The one thing he needs is water. At the moment, Mr. Ouma relies on cisterns that hold rainwater. But the cisterns are not always full. Mr. Ouma points at dozens of dead paw paw trees to show what happens when droughts are long and there’s no irrigation.

If he had enough money, Mr. Ouma would hire someone to dig a well to access the plentiful groundwater. With that and a solar pump, he sees a bright future for his land and for himself. He says, “You can see I have abundant room to grow…. When I have that constant supply of water, that is just gold.”