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Sunny Irrigation raises growth prospects for smallholder farmers in Africa

Story of Success

In a series of stories, Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) is profiling five entrepreneurs in Africa who recently received the inaugural “Energy Access Booster” awards, which honors those who are implementing energy access projects, including green mini-grids, sustainable mobility, refrigeration and energy for agriculture and drinking water. The awards are in support of Sustainable Development Goal 7 to provide reliable, affordable and clean energy for all by 2030.

Millions of smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa have inadequate access to sustainable and consistent water sources. They lack rain during the dry season and uncertain rainfall at other times. While a majority can access water within their vicinity, they face the challenge of inadequate information, while lacking the financial means to pay for the large upfront costs for a reliable irrigation system.

Another challenge is that during rainy seasons, farmers grow crops at the same time, creating a market surplus that depresses product prices and farming income instead of generating prosperity. In response, farmers could switch to cultivating high-value crops, but a lack of agricultural and irrigation expertise often prevents them from doing so.

Sunny Irrigation believes that it has found a solution to these problems with a cutting-edge, affordable and portable solar-powered water pump, which is marketed in partnership with a local manufacturer. The company’s offerings not only make irrigating fields easier, but provides important information to farmers using geospatial data analytics to maximize their economic opportunities. This data analytics involves the use of environmental and market data to produce meaningful and actionable results for improved agricultural production and marketing.

Sunny Irrigation plans to equip the pumps with an Internet-of-Things-based controller that can upload humidity, temperature and sunlight data, which can then be used to provide agronomic advice to farmers to help them grow higher margin crops at better yields. The pump also comes with a USB adapter for phone charging.

Sunny Irrigation is the brainchild of Rick Sheridan, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the INSEAD Business School. He has been developing and marketing technology related to off-grid projects involving solar power, irrigation and pay-as-you-go systems in emerging markets in Africa and Asia for more than a decade.

The company’s core strategy is based on the premise that a solar-powered irrigation system will allow farmers to increase their crop yield and generate greater income.

Sheridan said he got the idea for Sunny Irrigation when working on an earlier project with farmers in Gujarat, India. The farmers complained that the government was not providing enough electricity to power large submersible electric pumps to irrigate their fields. Sheridan thought it would be more efficient to provide them with smaller and cheaper solar-powered pumps to take advantage of India’s abundant sunlight.

Based on that concept, Sunny Irrigation pumps harness solar energy using a solar panel to draw underground water from as much as 15 meters below the land surface after a well or borehole is dug.

Each pump can irrigate up to one acre of land depending on the season. For example, a pump can irrigate a quarter acre of land growing vegetables during the dry season and half an acre during the rainy season and even more if water sources are close to the surface.

The pumps are made affordable to farmers using a pay-as-you-go system based on monthly payments made through mobile money transfers. After making an initial 10% down payment, the farmers pay a monthly rental fee. After 18 months, the payments are completed and the farmer owns the pump.

Sunny Irrigation estimates that there is a potential market of more than 10 million smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. It has already launched a pilot project in Kenya under a local business development team.

“Anecdotally, we can already see our farmers having rich, verdant crops, while having more time for other work than when they were relying only on rainfed agriculture,” said Sheridan.

Sheridan said that his company initially relied on funding from crowdfunding and angel investors who recognized Sunny Irrigation’s expertise in applying off-grid energy solutions for agriculture based on a sustainable financial model.

The funds provided by the Energy Access Booster award will be used to help develop the IoT pump controller and provide working capital for loans to farmers.

Sunny Irrigation’s business model addresses the “last mile” in terms of energy access to develop more prosperous communities, especially those in remote and rural areas.