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Central Kenya farmers turn to solar irrigation

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 20 Jun 2011 00:09 GMT
Author: Pius Sawa
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MWEA, Kenya (AlertNet) – Farmers in Central Kenya are embracing solar technology as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to irrigate their land.

Joseph Mutua has begun using a solar-powered pump to bring water from the nearby Nyamindi River to irrigate his export-bound food crops, which include French beans, baby corn and kale.

Solar panels standing on tall metal poles are connected to a pump immersed in the river, 200 metres away. A pipe carries water from the pump to a storage tank at the farm, and from there it is directed through pipes to irrigate Mutua’s farmland.


Farmers generally use diesel or petrol engines to pump water, but increases in the price of oil are making these pumps increasingly expensive to run.

"A farmer using a diesel pump spends up to 5,000 Kenyan shillings a day (about $60) to pump water to a medium piece of land," Mutua said.

By contrast, the solar pump, once purchased and installed, costs nothing to run. That enables farmers to spend their money on things like seeds instead of irrigation, Mutua said.

"For over a year now since I bought the solar pump, I have not had any maintenance. It has really saved me a lot of money," said Mutua.

NOT CHEAP, BUT CLEAN

The pump is not cheap. A solar pump with eight panels costs around 1.2 million shillings (about $14,000).  Mutua started with the smallest possible unit – two solar panels ­– which, together with a tank and irrigation pipes, enabled him to irrigate 0.2 hectares (half an acre) of vegetables.

The initial cost was 170,000 shillings (about $1,900), which he paid out of his farming income and from savings.   

In addition to its minimal running costs, the solar technology is environmentally clean. Unlike diesel engines, the solar-powered pump emits no pollution or climate changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The pump also is helping to conserve water from the Nayamindi river. Low rainfall, likely caused by climatic change, is causing the river to dry up at certain times of year.

In drought-prone areas of Kenya, irrigation is widely used in farming. But uncontrolled irrigation methods, such as flooding furrows with water and letting it soak into the soil, are endangering water supplies.

"Every drop of water matters. Twenty years from now, if we don't keep our environment safe, we shall perish," warned Edwin Munge, a regional agronomist in Kirinyaga district.

Munge works with Kenya Horticultural Exporters, a local company to which Joseph Mutua sells his French beans. Munge is helping small-scale farmers such as Mutua adopt ways of conserving water, including the solar pump technology.

By pumping river water into storage tanks, farmer can practice drip irrigation, releasing water drip by drip through pipes lying on the surface of their land.

"Flooding takes 20 cubic metres of water per acre (8 cubic metres per hectare) while drip irrigation takes only two cubic metres per acre (0.8 cubic meters per hectare)," Munge said.

As more farmers adopt the new technology, there is hope that food can be produced even when conditions are harsh. Some farmers in the area now harvest runoff water, which is collected in underground reservoirs. The water can be used for irrigation during the dry season and pumped to gardens using the solar technology.

Mutua started using the solar-powered pump in 2010, and is eager to promote it.

“This has excited so many farmers, who are saving money to acquire theirs as well,” he said.

Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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