There are fifty four countries on the continent of Africa and agriculture is a key driver of social and economic growth in each of them. Two-thirds of Africans are employed within the sector, contributing around 23% to the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa. Containing more than 65% of global uncultivated arable land (according to the African Development Bank) Africa brims with vast potential; however utilisation and productivity has remained low due to a cocktail of challenges at varying levels.
CGIAR – addressing the global climate threat
In Sub-Saharan Africa the trajectory of the global climate threat is particularly daunting, impacts on food production are a key reason climate change could cost African countries up to 15 percent of their GDP by 2030. This week, at the UN’s climate change conference ‘COP26’, a coalition of funders pledged US$575 million to deliver climate-smart solutions to farmers in low-income countries via the CGIAR global network of agricultural research partnerships.
CGIAR is the world’s largest public sector research partnership serving the needs of more than 500 million smallholder farmers who are responsible for feeding billions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 60% of farmers in Africa are smallholder farmers, 80% of them live in rural areas and they account for 90% of agricultural output despite the myriad of challenges they face.
“This critical investment surge is a welcome down-payment for accelerating CGIAR’s climate adaptation efforts that already are providing millions of farmers with innovations like stress-tolerant crop varieties and new strategies to restore degraded lands,” says Kundhavi Kadiresan, Managing Director, Global Engagement and Innovation at CGIAR. “We have a deep understanding of the many ways climate change is affecting food production in fast growing regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia and a commitment to building resilience through integrated, environmentally sustainable solutions that rebalance agriculture’s relationship with nature.”
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged US$315 million over the next three years to support CGIAR’s climate-related work. Half of the US$315 million investment from the Gates Foundation will support climate adaptation initiatives undertaken through the new CGIAR portfolio, which is streamlining CGIAR partnerships, knowledge and assets to accelerate the pace of innovation flowing to smallholder farmers.
“Climate impacts on food production are an existential threat for several hundred million people who depend on agriculture to support their families,” says Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “CGIAR has been delivering high-impact solutions to smallholder farmers for half a century and I’m confident they can lead a global effort to develop the innovations needed to adapt to a changing climate.”
Claudia Sadoff, Executive Management Team Convener, and Managing Director, Research Delivery and Impact at CGIAR thinks the time for the global community to act is now. “There are many exciting innovations available… but there is still a large gap between the magnitude of the climate threat to smallholder farmers and investments required to help them adapt. Adaptation in agriculture is about pursuing a greener pathway.” she says. “That includes providing technologies that help farmers grow more food with less water and revitalizing degraded landscapes through holistic strategies that support both food production and ecosystem services.”
Irrigation challenges for African Agriculture
The majority of African farmlands are primarily rainfed with a dependence on unpredictable rainfall making food production seasonal and vulnerable to climate change induced water shortages.
In some instances farmers flood their fields with nearby streams which can rapidly deplete soil of its nutrients. Relatively wealthy farmers are known to use diesel powered pumps or generators to extract water from the ground – this makes irrigation expensive and increases greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers who are unable to afford commercial irrigation solutions are forced to manually collect water from long distances for an average of 8 hours per day – a largely backbreaking task with minimal beneficial impact on crops.
In Kenya a widespread drought is currently under way, only 3% of Kenyan farmers use the necessary irrigation techniques required to be productive. Israeli smart irrigation company SupPlant has recently begun work with around half a million, mostly female, smallholder maize farmers in Kenya. The firm’s new sensor-less technology collects and analyses hyperlocal climatic, plant, and irrigation data to help smallholders avoid crop failures.
Only 6% of cultivated farmland in Africa (around 32 million acres) is estimated to have access to reliable irrigation, this compares with 37% for Asia and 14% for Latin America. Whilst this poses a big challenge for smallholders it does present a technology opportunity for willing start-ups.
Pay-as-you-go solar-powered irrigation solutions – SunCulture
Kenya’s SunCulture is a start-up transforming African agriculture with its solar irrigation offering. Founded in 2012 by Samir Ibrahim, the company manufactures and distributes solar-powered irrigation solutions that make it cheaper and easier for smallholder farmers to grow crops. The company began by selling its integrated energy generation and water-pumping systems to middle income farmers who hold lucrative jobs in cities like Nairobi and grow crops on land they own in rural areas. That market was willing to spend the required US$5,000 to install SunCulture’s initial systems but the system was unaffordable for the majority of smallholder farmers.
As a result SunCulture redesigned its product and the cost of the newer system is much lower at between US$500 and US$1,000. Its RainMaker product is a solar-powered water pump that can lift 6,000 litres of ground water per day and can pump from wells up to 100 metres below ground. This compares favourably to current market alternatives that draw from only 10 metres deep, the company claims to be 90% cheaper than its nearest rival. SunCulture also provides a model for pay-as-you-go irrigation, thus making its product more accessible to its smallholder customers as they can pay in small monthly instalments for as little as US$2 per day.
With this, the company hopes to prevent the emission of 20,000 tonnes of CO2 per year as farmers replace diesel pumps with solar ones whilst facilitating income growth and job opportunities in rural communities. According to the company, its product helps farmers increase crop yields by 300% and reduce water usage by 80%.
By combining mobile banking technology with pay-as-you-go (PAYG) financing the company has grown to reach customers across Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Senegal, Togo, and Ivory Coast. In March 2021 SunCulture raised an $11 million credit facility which was arranged by SunFunder, a financing company specialised in solar energy.
SunCulture customer Japhet Muthami told the firm that he previously spent 6-8 hours per day collecting water manually but produced very little yield. He tried using a hand pump and a traditional generator, but these options either didn’t provide enough water or were so expensive that he found he was losing money. Since coming across SunCulture Japhet says he has tripled his monthly income from 12,000 KES (US$108) to 37,000-40,000 KES (US$362) per month and can continue harvesting his vegetables during the dry season. He’s taken advantage of SunCulture’s Pay-As-You-Grow financing option, allowing him to pay small monthly instalments, since he has completed payments ahead of time he currently pays 3,100 KES (US$28) per month.
In a statement Samir Ibrahim, Chief Executive Officer at SunCulture, said: “The past year was devastating for the millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya; 87% are in a worse financial position due to the pandemic. 81% of SunCulture farmers, however, were able to increase their revenue from farming in 2020. Solar irrigation helps create food security and sovereignty, and it also helps lift people out of poverty. This facility further enables our efforts to support farmers by providing them with more of our solar solutions and faster.”
International projects – the Chameleon soil sensor
In a project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Australian Government corporate entity CSIRO developed the Chameleon soil water sensor system for use by smallholders around the world. Use of the sensor enables growers to maximise plant health whilst also avoiding over-watering which, as well as wasting precious resources, can deplete soil nutrients.
Three or four sensors are permanently installed at various soil depths to give the farmer a picture of moisture levels below ground in his field. Using a variable system of coloured light indicators, the Chameleon system visually shows farmers how much moisture is contained in the soil at any one time. A blue light for wet ‘no irrigation needed for a long while’, green for moist ‘no irrigation needed just yet’ and red for dry ‘irrigation required immediately’. One can easily imagine how farmers came up with the name Chameleon (or ‘Kinyonga’ in Swahili).
Sensors can be left in place for the next crop or be removed at the end of the season and reinstalled. The array can be connected to either the Chameleon Wi-Fi Reader (US$200) or to a credit card sized reader which uses two wires that protrude from the soil (US$65).
In addition to improved irrigation efficiency (a reported 30% reduction in water use) and the reduction of diseases previously promoted by over‐watering, farmers have seen up to 30% increases in their crop yields.
Through the establishment of the Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) tens of thousands of Chameleon sensors have been distributed. African countries with smallholders using the sensor include Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In Malawi the women sing praise of the VIA, such is the importance of the device to their daily lives:
Irrigation in Egypt – Remote Sensing
One might assume that with ancient access to the Nile river, Egypt has no such irrigation issues but this is not so. Egypt is the world’s driest country with the lowest rate of annual rainfall. Speaking last week at the fourth Cairo Water Week, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty said the country suffers from a water deficit of 90 per cent of its renewable resources.
Despite a strategic decline in its average birth rate, Egypt’s population has continued to increase and the Nile only provides the country with 70% of its water supply. According to the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, agriculture uses more than 85% of the country’s share of the Nile. Consequently Egypt is very much subject to the negative impacts of climate change and drought.
Early in 2021 Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, in conjunction with Cairo’s MSA University, began a small precision irrigation technology trial, providing 200 free devices to farmers.
Buried in the ground, the sensors transmit data to mobile phones so that farmers can determine whether their crops need watering, much like the aforementioned Chameleon device. Of course this doesn’t provide the actual irrigation solution itself, but it does enable farmers to make better use of what water they have and improve their application timings to boost plant health and crop yields.
However, new farming technology like this is not necessarily an instant success when dealing with smallholders, it requires trust on the part of the farmer, some training and not to mention, a smartphone – not always a given in Egypt. Smallholders also need to be persuaded that that an investment in new technology like irrigation sensors will provide long term boosts in yields and profit.
Irrigation in Egypt – Mechanised Raised Bed Irrigation (MRBI)
When smallholders come together to invest in new technology they give themselves opportunities that might otherwise only be available to larger commercial farms. In Egypt one such example has been the Raised Bed Machine (RBM) – developed by the International Centre for Agriculture Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in collaboration with other parties.
The machine has been designed with a row of furrow openers which allow farmers to dig water channels in the land, it can also drill seeds into the soil between these channels. When irrigated, water travels along the resulting furrows and the plants themselves send out their roots sideways in search of the moisture, this makes them stronger and healthier than if they are completely submerged or flooded when roots become lazy and absorb fewer nutrients.
As well as vastly increasing water efficiency ICARDA says the MRBI approach has achieved 20-30% higher crop yields and 25% savings in irrigation water in Egypt, reducing farming costs by about 20%. Scaling-out of raised bed machines has led to wheat area increases throughout Egypt, with production expected to increase to over 14 million tons by 2025. This would result in a total irrigation water saving of more than 1.5 billion m3/year by 2025, benefiting an additional 200,000 hectares. Numerous agreements and funding have been deployed to out-scale the machines outside of Egypt through donors such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the EU, and FAO.
All of these irrigation trends and evolving attitudes about water consumption will help African farmers build resilience to the effects of climate change and optimise scarce resources with precision. Hurdles such as financing and suspicion of new technology need to be addressed at the outset. Hesitancy should be countered with proven yield and profit benefits to the smallholder whilst the affordability of solutions likely requires influence from external investment.