By Benson Rioba — In the scorching sun, Alphonce Abok keeps an eye on his fields of watermelons growing near the banks of the Sound River, one of the major channels feeding into Lake Victoria. “I hope with enough water this time around I will harvest my watermelons,” said the farmer from western Kenya.
Not so long ago, he said, his efforts failed as he couldn’t get enough water to the crop. In July, however, he purchased a solar-powered irrigation pump that he now hopes will give him a much more reliable harvest.
The equipment, from Futurepump, which imports irrigation kits from India, draws energy from an 80-watt solar panel mounted on a metal frame. The solar power then drives a motor that pulls water from a river, well or storage tank.
Abok used to use a diesel irrigation pump that cost nearly $10 a day in fuel to run, and often drained his budget, he said.
His new $637 pump required a $414 down payment, with $25 a month repayments until it is paid off.
The price tag can make the pumps hard to afford for many small farmers, but Futurepump, based in Kisumu, has set up loan programmes with banks and micro-finance institutions to help buyers acquire the equipment, said Charles Ahenda-Bengo, the company’s general manager.
The firm also hopes to eventually begin manufacturing the solar irrigation kits locally, to help cut costs, Ahenda-Bengo said.
The solar pump was designed specifically for small-scale farmers who can’t afford the irrigation technology used by large farmers, but who increasingly need to irrigate their crops as rainfall becomes more irregular, he said.
So far, the company has sold 200 pumps in Kenya. Another 350 have been sold in other East African countries, Ahenda-Bengo said.
Rachael Opiyo, another farmer who bought one of the solar pumps with her savings this year, fears the high up-front cost may keep many farmers from investing in the technology.
But Ahenda-Bengo said the kit, which is guaranteed for five years, is less expensive if considered over its potential lifespan — and cheaper than losing crops repeatedly.
Joshua Okundi, another farmer who has bought a solar pump, said the device is saving time as well as cash, as the diesel pump engine levels don’t need to be topped up.
Patrick Nduati, the principal secretary for irrigation in Kenya’s Ministry of Water, said the government is not charging value-added tax on such solar kits. The country’s draft National Irrigation Policy proposes offering more incentives to farmers to buy such devices.
Irrigation has the potential to boost and protect production on many small farms, Nduati said. Already the country has 3,600 smallholder irrigation projects covering 168,000 acres, or about 42 per cent of the country’s total irrigated area. —Thomson Reuters Foundation