Stanford study shows gain in African solar-powered irrigation

Jan. 14, 2010, 12:03 a.m.

The dry season in sub-Saharan Africa is a brutal six months of minimal rainfall, widespread malnutrition and community dislocation. However, according to a study by Jennifer Burney, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE), solar-powered drip irrigation systems may provide a viable long-term solution.

Burney has spent the past three years studying the effectiveness of a pilot project involving photovoltaic (PV) irrigation installations in two villages in rural Benin. Burney worked with her co-authors, Marshall Burke of UC- Berkeley and Lennart Woltering and Dov Pasternak of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niger.

Benin’s Kalalé district has 42 villages and a population of approximately 104,000 people and 95 percent of them depend on subsistence farming as their primary livelihood. During the dry season, a six-month period between November and April, the region may receive as little as 20 or fewer inches of rain. For the 80 percent of Kalalé villages not near a water source, this shortage takes an enormous toll on crop production, income, health and nutrition and can cause community dislocation when families are forced to relocate to urban areas and search for jobs.

Burney, who spent most of 2007 working in Benin, initially became involved with the project because of her involvement with the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a non-profit organization whose self-proclaimed purpose is to fight “climate change and global poverty with solar power.” They first began funding the installation of solar-powered drip irrigation in fall of 2006 and by 2007, the technology had been implemented.

Burney said SELF took a great deal of time during the installation process to train as many locals as possible in the construction and maintenance skills associated with the irrigation system. According to Burney, the purpose was to foster involvement and attachment to the system, as well as to ensure its sustainability.

Three systems were installed altogether: two surface-level pumps in the village of Bessassi and one submersible pump in the village of Dunkassa. The advantages of PV technology are its immunity to fuel shortages, a lower long-term cost than traditional diesel generators and saved labor.

Burney’s study of the project’s effectiveness showed incredible results: all three systems produced 1.9 metric tons of produce per month, vegetable intake increased to 3-5 servings per day during the dry season and 17 percent of people living in the villages reported feeling less “food insecure.” Additionally, families using the systems increased their income by selling a large portion of their excess produce, the size of plots cultivated experienced a dramatic visual difference, the effort needed to cultivate them decreased and nutrition improved dramatically.

However, one of the project’s most striking results goes beyond the realm of the quantitative. Independent of any efforts by SELF, education programs developed in the participating villages to teach young people about the system.

“One of the schools developed a whole curriculum. Kids do calculations about how long it would take to water a plot of a certain size by hand versus with an irrigation system and they go visit the site,” Burney said.

The sense of community pride that has arisen in response to the new technology came as a pleasant surprise, according to Burney, who said her greatest fears going into the project came from hearing “all these terrible stories about development projects gone bad.

“This has been nice to see, that it’s a prized sort of community possession,” she added.

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