April 26

Helen Davies

For Solar Irrigation to Grow, the Pump Needs to be Innovative – So Does the Warranty

Editor’s Note: This post is part of NextBillion’s series on Offline Innovation – one of several topic areas we’ll be covering through special series this year. Click here for more details on our 2018 series.


Innovation. One could easily say that this has become the buzz word of the last 50-plus years. But what does it really mean?

Innovation comes in many forms, new methods of doing, new ideas, new products… all designed to solve a problem, make a change, transform a market or a community. I don’t know about you, but when I think of innovation, I tend to think of smart, digital technologies – because that’s what all new stuff is, isn’t it?

However, as this NextBillion series demonstrates, there is still a lot of space for innovation in “hardware,” technologies and machines that tackle challenges head on, often without clever electronics.


Appropriate innovations

Visiting sub-Saharan Africa, it is easy to make judgements of how communities should change, how rural smallholders could be more efficient, how people could work their way out of poverty. However, this sentiment often comes with our “Western” goggles securely fastened. Surely if appropriate technologies were available and practicable, people would be using them. Being poor does not make you stupid. Innovations in this sector need to be appropriate to the cultures, finances, businesses and knowledge of those we hope will use them. What we simply label as a “good idea” is not nearly enough to be proclaimed an innovation.

Take irrigation as an example. In Kenya 70 percent of the rural population is part of the agricultural sector and around 10 percent are smallholder farmers, farming land of 1-2 hectares each. They work tirelessly every day to plant, tend and irrigate their farms, producing fruits and vegetables for home consumption and selling any excess at market to make ends meet.

Irrigation has been shown to substantially increase production on farms compared to dryland farming, and increased production results in more food on the table and more income from the market, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Nevertheless, irrigation is often sporadic. In fact, only approximately 20 percent of Kenya’s total arable land is irrigated regularly, and when it is, it is often inefficient furrow irrigation. To us it seems simple – the facts show you should irrigate, and if you do it efficiently, you will profit. It seems paradoxical that this isn’t just the norm.


Irrigation challenges

So, what are the challenges that smallholder farmers are facing with regard to irrigation? They include the following:

  • Price of pumps, labour, maintenance and fuel
  • Availability of spare pumps and replacement parts
  • Risk and expense of irrigation versus being unsure of the climate
  • Tradition: In rural locations, knowledge is passed down through the generations. People don’t ask “Why do we do it like this?” And when they do, the response commonly is: “We’ve always done it like this.”

These challenges stem from what is currently available to smallholders. They either manually irrigate their land, and are limited by the availability and costs of labour and the time-consuming physical drudgery of this daily task. Or they invest in fuel pumps, which tie farmers into unpredictable and volatile fuel and maintenance costs – and the sporadic, inefficient irrigation techniques of intentionally flooding the land once or twice a week.

The contrast between those who have access to a water supply and the funds to irrigate through dry seasons is also startling. Being able to water plants every day, even for a short period, is quite literally a matter of life or death for the crops, the livestock and the livelihoods of Kenyans who rely on farming for their incomes – which, again, constitute the majority of the country.

In a painful sense of irony, those who can afford to irrigate in the dry season only see their profits grow. Demand for irrigated fruit and vegetables increases dramatically as the number of producers drops significantly.


Emerging hardware solutions

What is needed is a reliable, free energy irrigation solution designed specifically with small rural farms in mind. There needs to be a cost effective, renewable off-grid system that is simple to use and maintain. We at Futurepump think we have come up with the answer through harnessing the power of the sun to irrigate crops.

A solar pump completely removes the need for costly fuel: 86 percent of Futurepump customers reported that they have completely eradicated spending on water for irrigation, according to a 2017 Acumen report. This takes away the burden of volatile fuel prices as well as the time it takes to travel to purchase fuel.

The lightweight, portable system with easily movable pipes also reduces the labour burden of irrigation. Our solar pump is easy to reposition around the farm, and reduces the need to hire additional labour. This feature is especially beneficial to the women who make up around 50 percent of the agricultural work force, and who have previously struggled with the heavy pipes of fuel pumps.

Futurepump is a startup and the sole manufacturer of the SF solar irrigation pumps. Our business model is to work with established distributors who sell complementary goods and can maintain our quality after-sales support. At this point in time we have distributors across 11 countries in Africa and Asia, which have combined to sell over 4,000 pumps. We are always on the lookout for more distributors in new territories, as this is the way we hope to grow the business.

To make a solar pump suitable, innovation also comes through reliable warranty support. Is has been far too common to find well-meaning technologies tossed to the side, as when they break they are too complicated to fix or there is no customer support. Challenges like these may not seem to require “innovative” solutions to many of us, but in a rural African community, that’s definitely the case. Futurepump is the first solar pump company to offer a five-year warranty on our product, something which we hope will increase trust – not only in our products, but also in the solar market overall.

All these elements – reduced financial burden, increased warranty support and ease of use – reduce the risk of irrigation. If you are not spending so much time and labour on watering your crops, you can afford to try irrigation even when unsure about climate variation. Indeed, this concern will only grow in importance as climate change disrupts normal climate patterns.


Innovations have to make a long-term difference

Whether a technology is innovative relies on so many factors, but ultimately, I think it must be suitable for the market it is entering; it has to really make a difference to those using it, and this difference has to be long-term. Solar irrigation for sub-Saharan Africa is one of these innovations that will go far – if distributors and manufacturers stand behind it, promote solar as a viable solution and support the knowledge exchange to new customers.

There is widespread need, untapped opportunity and unlimited sunshine. Enterprising companies will reap the benefits, but only if their customers do as well.


Helen Davies is Marketing and Communications Manager for Futurepump.
Top photo: Setting up a Futurepump SF2, a portable solar irrigation pump for seasonal vegetable farmers. Image by Futurepump


Agriculture, Energy, Technology
business development, innovation, smallholder farmers, solar