Innovation of the Week: Harnessing the Sun’s Power to Make the Water Flow

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By Janeen Madan

Nearly 2 billion people around the world live off the electricity grid. Lack of access to energy can take a huge toll, especially on food security. Without energy for irrigation, for example, small-scale farmers must rely on unpredictable rainfall to grow the crops they depend on for food and income.

SELF’s solar-powered irrigation system is improving food security and raising incomes. (Photo credit: SELF)

In the Kalalé district of northern Benin, agriculture is a source of livelihood for 95 percent of the population. But small-scale farmers lack access to effective irrigation systems. Women and young girls spend long hours walking to nearby wells to fetch water to irrigate their fields by hand.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a U.S. nonprofit, has introduced an innovative solar-powered drip irrigation system that is helping farmers—especially women—irrigate their fields. The pilot project launched in partnership with Dr. Dov Pasternak of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRASAT), has installed solar panels in Bessassi and Dunkassa villages This cost-effective and environmentally sustainable project is improving food security and raising incomes by providing access to irrigation for small-scale farmers, especially during the six-month dry season.

Farmers are diversifying the crops they grow to include trees and vegetables, like tomatoes and lettuce. Their production has increased ten times. And, because women and young girls no longer walk long distances to fetch water, they have more time to participate in agricultural activities.

According to an assessment by Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE), villagers are not only eating healthier, but they also have year-round access to nutritious fruits and vegetables. And, by selling surplus produce at the local market, women farmers are earning an extra $7.50 per week, which they can use to pay for school fees and medical costs.

SELF is partnering with NGOs, governments, and companies, like Dell and Infosat, to bring solar electricity to some 1 million people in over 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Its Solar Integrated Development (SID) model is designed to enhance self reliance. Farmers participate in determining the community’s priorities for the project; they purchase the solar systems through micro-loans; and SELF provides training and spare parts to install and maintain the panels over the long-run.

Often, national electricity development plans focus on expanding centralized grids, and rarely benefit the rural poor—a majority of whom are engaged in small-scale farming. But the photovoltaic (PV)—or solar-powered—micro-grids that SELF promotes are benefitting rural communities.

According to SELF’s Executive Director, Robert Freling, nicknamed ‘the man who wants to light up Africa,’ access to electricity is a human right and is essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. SELF’s projects are providing electricity to power water purification pumps that improve access to clean water, store vaccines, and support local community enterprises. In Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi, and Lesotho, SELF is working with Partners in Health to install solar panels that help power medical equipment in hospitals.

According to Freling, energy is the fuel that powers development—it is cost-effective in the long-term and good for the environment.

Do you know of other ways to ensure self-sufficiency among rural communities in the long-term? Let us know in the comments section below!

Janeen Madan is a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To read about other solar innovations, see: What’s (Solar) Cooking in the Gambia?Afterthought for some, daily struggle for othersInnovation of the Week: Barefoot College Empowers in More Ways than One, and What Works: Putting Cooked Food on the Table.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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