Solar powered irrigation for food security in arid areas

Image credit: A solar-powered drip irrigation system waters vegetable crops. Photo by Jennifer A. Burney

The Kenyan government and the World Bank are planning  a solar project that will increase electrification and water supply in fourteen marginalized areas of the semi arid arid counties. It will also help increase irrigation in these areas, thus help reduce the effects of drought.

The Off-grid Solar Access Project for Underserved Counties is now in the planning stages, is expected to cost a total of US$ 155 million and the World Bank has committed to providing US$ 150 million. It will target the pastoral and low level sedentary farming on marginalized soils in arid and semi-arid lands, according to documents from World Bank. The 14 counties make up 72 percent of the countries total land area but the population is widely dispersed, as they host only 20 percent of the country's population. Their remoteness puts them at a disadvantage of receiving adequate power, portable water and other social services. Given their dispersed nature, electrification using the national grid proves costly and minigrids and standalone solar systems could offer a cheaper electrification solution.

This solar project will mark a major commitment by the government in advancing mini grid and standalone solar power in rural communities. Previously, most of these projects were seen with private companies. However, private entities do not usually prefer deploying their technologies in such areas because of economic and other factors. The project will also mark the first major approach towards a clear strategy in developing off-grid technology and the mapping of areas where such is needful.

Although the country reported that 50 percent of Kenyans have access to electricity through the national grid -- a figure which is disputable -- electrification of remote areas remains low at about 5 percent.

The Kenya Off-grid solar project will comprise of five components:

  1. electrification of community through clustered minigrids,
  2. electrification of community and
  3. public institutions through standalone solar systems,
  4. pumping of drinking and irrigation water using solar energy, and
  5. technical and capacity building.

Electrification of the community through minigrids will involve interconnecting enterprises, community facilities and households to solar power source. Where load clusters do not work, the project will result to using standalone solar systems to supply electricity to the community and public institutions.

Electrification of community and public facilities using standalone solar systems is targeted at 27,570 institutions that are yet to supply power. Government of Kenya has supplied power to about 59,940 out 87,510 across the country.

Solar water pumping

The most aggressive option, as expected, will be using solar to pump drinking water and for irrigation. The development could help alleviate poverty in these areas, which are the worst affected by droughts that are recurrent and intense. UNDP reports that 2 million people are permanently on famine relief, with the number rising up to 5 million during severe droughts. People also relocate from these areas once drought strikes to go search for greener pastures for their cattle, given most of them practice pastoralism. Many cattle die due to drought.

Irrigation of arid and semi arid areas is touted as the solution to alleviating food shortage in these areas that have unpredictable weather patterns and persistent drought.

However, using diesel and petrol fuel water pumps is almost always uneconomical and even worse for arid and semi arid areas given the low income levels. A solar water pump basically involves converting solar energy to electrical energy, which is then used to drive the pump. World Bank says their project could render low-cost options. Going with research, PV-powered water pumping significantly reduces the cost of water extraction because it lowers maintenance and operation costs.

Of course, part of the concern in such a case would be improving water access for the irrigation pumps and World Bank will be exploring interventions in portable water supply to go hand in hand with the said project, it said. With this respect, more schools could get bore holes under the School WASH program, greenfield bore holes from the counties and retrofitted diesel-powered community water supply schemes with solar PV hybrid systems. There are so many organizations already working to improve supply of water in the arid and semi arid areas.


The World Bank is considering using a number of financing options for the project, and will involve public and private funding models. For instance, standalone solar systems could be funded through credit line facility, expansion subsidies, results-based carbon financing of developers and long term service contracts (10-15 years) with efficient private companies through international competitive bids (ICB). In the case of supplying power to public institutions using standalone solar systems, the World Bank will exploit a number of financing models including public sector led procurement to a private sector led service delivery or a hybrid approach utilizing elements of both the public and the private sector approaches.