Watered By Sunlight

Have you ever seen sunflowers follow the sun

Have you noticed the seemingly synchronized fashion in which they awaken from their night time stupor, and face skywards– slowly tracking the movement of the sun throughout the day only to stoop again at night. Why do they do this? To maximise photosynthesis. Their stems are adapted to ‘grow’ in the direction of the sun. Through this adaptation they are exposed to 10-15% more sunlight than if they were to remain still. French inventor, Augustin Mouchot, was similarly attracted to the sun. Having grown frustrated with an over dependence on coal in the 1800's he found a way to concentrate the sun’s energy. Using mirrors, he developed the earliest solar powered engine. Unfortunately, his invention was ahead of its time and he died a blind and poor man. Drawing from the work of pioneers such as Augustin, Gert Jan Bom, Technical Director at Futurepump Ltd, has harnessed the energy of the sun to bring water to smallholder farms through the Sunflower Pump.

Irrigating a way out of poverty

In Kenya, there are approximately 7.5 million smallholder farmers all of who make up 75% of the country’s agricultural output. According to the 2007 Global Hunger Index, half of the world’s undernourished people, three-quarters of Africa’s malnourished children, and the majority of people living in absolute poverty can be found on small farms. A cruel irony. FAO suggests that a lack of access to affordable irrigation is one key factor that keeps smallholder farmers trapped in the poverty cycle. In Kenya, this could certainly be true.

Less than 2 per cent of the country’s agriculture is irrigated, largely due to the prohibitive cost of equipment and diesel. This leaves farmers extremely vulnerable to drought and puts the country’s food security at great risk. Sunflower hits all the right environmental notes - running on clean and renewable energy - and tops it off with affordability.

It retails at around USD 650 which, in comparison to its diesel-fuelled counterparts - costing roughly USD 2,800 - is a near night and day difference. Furthermore, as there are no fuel costs, the initial investment of USD 650 can be recouped in 1-2 years. The creators of this technology estimate that farmers who use it could achieve an added average net revenue of USD 1,300 annually. As such, Sunflower presents a compelling economic case.

Perfect for Africa

One thing that sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of is sunshine - a major requirement for Sunflower. It is not surprising then that Futurepump has settled on Kenya to build its distribution network following field tests in three other African countries: Ethiopia , Zambia and Burkina Faso .

Designed with the principles of appropriate technology in mind, Sunflower has been made simple to use and easy to maintain and repair locally. As Nick Jeffries Futurepump’s Field Director quips, “If you understand how a bicycle operates, you will be able to understand this [Sunflower]”. If there’s one thing Kenyans everywhere understand, its bicycles. So if this is the case, Sunflower has succeeded in breaching cultural and literacy barriers. It comes as a kit, which can be self-installed, further adding to its cost-effectiveness.

How does it work?

Sunflower uses a solar collector that generates steam to drive a simple engine pump.

It can lift 12,000 litres/day from a 7.5m well (more at shallower depths), which can irrigate around 1/2 acre.

“The solar collector concentrates sunlight onto the water-filled boiler, producing steam which is piped to the engine. A cam attached to the flywheel shaft opens an inlet valve. Steam enters the cylinder and the pressure pushes the diaphragm piston forward activating the water pump and rotating the flywheel. The inlet valve closes, the exhaust valve opens and as the pressure drops and the flywheel inertia pushes the piston to the top of the cylinder and the cycle repeats” says Nick.

A potential global disruptor

If Sunflower takes hold as its creators hope, it could well displace millions of fossil fuel run irrigation pumps around the world. It would also transform the work of traditional farmers from back-breaking to mechanized at least insofar as watering crops is concerned.

Futurepump estimates that within a 3-year period, the utilisation of Sunflower would displace about 56,000 tons of CO2. This makes it not only a win for farmers but the environment as well. Emmanuel Kioko, a horticulturist who has experienced first-hand the benefits of Sunflower says, “We need machines or cost effective engines [for irrigation] otherwise with the current cost of fuel farmers hardly get anything in return.” So unlike Augustine Mouchot’s engine, the world is clearly ready for Sunflower.