Tapping into sunshine

Image credit: Jeffery M Walcott

There are over 500 million smallholder farmers globally, farming plots of land less than 2 ha in area. Many are struggling to make a living from farming and are looking for ways to increase productivity. Research shows that small farm productivity can be doubled by irrigation (UN FAO). However, many smallholder farmers struggle to irrigate their land. The limit is often either their own labour (hours spent manually irrigating) or the capital expenditure and fuel costs of running engine pumps. The challenge is clear: to provide cost-effective and practicable irrigation solutions to smallholder farmers. The solution: a sustainable method of irrigation which decouples volumes of irrigation water from volumes of gasoline or diesel fuel consumed - the SF1 solar pump from Futurepump Ltd. Futurepump have harnessed the energy of the sun to bring water to smallholder farmers.

Emerging from Kenya

The Futurepump project began in Kenya, a country that is already experiencing the effects of climate change. A country where smallholder farmers used to be able to predict rains but are now struggling as areas become more and more prone to erratic rains and prolonged dry spells. Concentrating on these shifting rainfall patterns sounds like focusing on a relatively insignificant impact of the changing climate, however, this has the potential to devastate a small-scale farmer whose only income is from the land.

In Kenya alone, there are approximately 7.5 million smallholder farmers, making up a huge 75% of the country’s agricultural output. They work tirelessly throughout the year to grow produce for their families and any income that can be achieved from local markets. Considering the lives of these smallholder farmers from a distance, it’s ‘easy’ to see many opportunities for improving production from the land. But it’s not always that simple! There are many puzzle pieces that need to fit together to ensure a sustainable business from farming and with the SF1, Futurepump is tackling a key portion.

Thanks to Futurepump, some of the poorest and most remote farmers in Kenya are now harnessing the power of the sun to irrigate their land. In remote Kenya, especially out in the fields, conventional grid power cannot be relied on for irrigation systems. When the rains don’t come, farmers turn to traditional, manual irrigation, or increasingly, polluting petrol and diesel-powered generators. Solar pumps give these farmers an ideal alternative. The positives of using solar over petrol especially, makes it not only a win for farmers but the environment as well.  Futurepump estimates that since the project began, farmers using the SF1, have avoided or replaced over 34 tCO2e!

Additionally, many farmers find that the running costs for their petrol pumps outweigh the income they can make from their crops – ongoing fuel, maintenance and labour costs lock farmers into unsustainable cycles of debt. After investing in a solar pump, many Futurepump customers are reporting savings of $100 - $200 USD a year and this is even before additional dry season production is included! When you look at it, solar seems like an obvious solution. The initial investment may not appear cheap at $650 USD, however, it pays off fast (1-2 years) and after that savings become additional income. Solar pumps, like the SF1, require no purchase of petrol or diesel and no payment of electricity bills. Additionally, the SF1 is protected by a 2-year warranty and with this the regular maintenance costs of engine pumps are slashed. With the support of innovations like this, small-scale farmers will never again be left high and dry with no hope of irrigating their land.

Don’t just take our word for it… hear from the farmers

Bob Ouma farms a 3-acre plot; he grows maize and kale for market alongside a range of other vegetables for home consumption. Before purchasing the SF1, he was manually irrigating his land, or waiting for the rains, so had left areas uncultivated. Now he has increased the size of his cultivated land and can grow additional crops in the dry season. With this, he predicts an increased income of over $400 this year! Bob explains that being able to sell green maize in the dry season increases the price per cob by a massive 60% and this income is essential for him to be able to expand his farm as well as pay for school fees.

Zedekiah Owinyo, a passionfruit farmer in Ahero, Kenya, has also experienced first-hand the benefits of the SF1. He purchased the pump because he wanted to make sure that he got value out of his crop. Before, when he had no money there would be no water for the plants. Now he can guarantee the water for his crops as there is always sun.

Going global

With over 1,000 pumps manufactured, Futurepump is now looking for global distributors. The team is interested to hear from distributors who sell complementary products, have experience in importing goods and who can offer after-sales support.

Getting technical; about the SF1 solar pump…

Designed with simplicity, durability and efficiency in mind, the SF1 uses an 80 W PV panel which generates electrical energy to drive a simple reciprocal piston pump. 

The solar PV panel directly converts energy from the sun into electrical energy. This is then directly transferred to a simple motor which in turn rotates the flywheel. The flywheel turning engages the yoke and piston which move up and down drawing water through the pump cylinder.

Dependent on depth of well and sunshine levels it can produce up to 2,500 L/hour, this can easily irrigate around 1/2 acre.
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