Kenyan farmers profit from the sun to water crops

Drip irrigation requires a costly upfront investment, but it pays for itself in a relatively short time

For subsistence farmers in rain-scarce Kenya, drip irrigation can mean the difference between hand-to-mouth survival and being able to grow an agricultural business like Alice Migwi’s.

She now has three full-time employees, an expanding plot of land, and enough surplus produce to sell to restaurants and hotels after harvest.

“A drip system is perhaps the best way to manage your watering,” said Migwi, a 38-year-old farmer turned entrepreneur. “And when it’s solar powered, it’s even better.”

That’s why she invested her savings in an irrigation kit from SunCulture, a Kenya-based startup, to help convert her quarter-acre kitchen garden in Gitaru, northwest of Nairobi, into a four-acre (1.6-hectare) farm.

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The highly efficient drip irrigation system saves on water and has allowed Migwi to diversify her crops from tomatoes to thyme and coriander to cabbage, right down to the passion fruit vines that climb her farm fence.

“We want to make sure that farmers have an affordable way to irrigate that removes most recurring costs for them,” said SunCulture’s CEO and co-founder, Samir Ibrahim. “We want to help them grow more while spending less.”

He and co-founder Charles Nichols, both American, developed the system to address Kenya’s irrigation shortage. Of the country’s 5.5 million hectares (13.6 million acres) of arable land, 83 per cent needs irrigation to be used for agriculture, but only about four per cent is irrigated, Ibrahim said.

Most farmers irrigate their land by flooding it from a nearby river or lake, which can erode the soil and deplete its nutrients, or use diesel-fuelled drip irrigation, which incurs high fuel and maintenance costs.

Food security

SunCulture aims to break new ground by circumventing diesel and powering drip systems with solar energy.

Solar power has been available on the market for a long time, but deploying it for agriculture is new, Ibrahim said.

The irrigation kit harvests the sun’s energy to pump water from a well into an elevated tank. It then uses gravity to release controlled volumes of water through plastic piping lined with small emitters that regulate the flow to targeted areas.

Nichols, an engineer, designed the system for a New York University business competition. Now the company imports materials from Europe and Asia, and assembles the kits for farmers on site.

Qureish Noordin, a program officer with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an international partnership that supports African farmers, said the technology could prove a “win-win” strategy in Kenya’s battle against food insecurity, which is being made tougher by changing climate patterns.

“This is a big opportunity because many areas do not have easy access to diesel-run engines, and the Kenyan government is putting a lot of emphasis on solar power now,” he said.

Noordin said drip irrigation, presently an undervalued technology, is essential in a country plagued in recent years by poor rainy seasons, prolonged droughts and shrinking rivers.

This year’s rainy season was about 60 per cent below normal, Noordin said.

“Kenya is also rethinking its food security strategy, and promoting more agribusiness and value addition,” he added.

Farmers who move from subsistence agriculture into growing higher-value crops with advanced irrigation are more likely to remain food secure, he noted.

Cost of kits

But SunCulture’s kits are not cheap. To cover a single acre of land costs about 250,000 shillings ($2,795), Ibrahim said.

The company has partnered with Equity Bank to provide loans to lower-income farmers wanting to buy kits. But Gitaru farmer Migwi said the loans can have prohibitively high interest rates.

She chose to dip into her savings to buy her kit, and has managed to earn back her money in the year since she bought it. Had she paid interest on a loan, it would have taken closer to five years to break even, she said.

Ibrahim said the initial investment for a SunCulture kit is steep, but it saves farmers money down the road in labour, maintenance and fuel costs, and earns them additional revenue from better crop yields.

SunCulture’s kits rely on ground well water, which can be scarce in dry spells. But Migwi, who lost some crops earlier this year due to groundwater shortages, now plans to collect rainwater to replenish her well in dry periods.

“It’s a very efficient system,” she said of her irrigation kit, after a busy morning of planting. “If you have water, there’s no time of year when you cannot plant.”

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