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How green innovation can transform African agriculture

With the threat of climate change and coronavirus, decentralized renewable energy could be key to building more resilient food systems.

Kudzai Chimhangwa
7 October 2020
Image: IRENA, CC by 2.0

For sub-Saharan Africa, the negative impact of climate change has made thinking about better farming practices more important than ever. Massive shifts in rainfall patterns over the years have forced countries in this region to be net food importers, meaning that the continent imports more food than it exports. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa spent USD64.5 billion importing food, and this is projected to rise to over USD110 billion by 2025, should there be no interventions. These commodities, which can be produced on the continent, include rice, beef, soybeans, sugar and wheat, among others.

Europe remains Africa’s top agricultural trade partner but the COVID-19 pandemic led to depressed demand due to financial constraints and shifts in spending patterns. In that light, decentralized renewable energy rollout is becoming a central part of building resilience, scaling agriculture and strengthening food productivity in Africa.

Farmers need solar water pumps for irrigation, biogas technologies and agrophotovoltaic (or APV) projects to realise better yields under climate change conditions. One may argue that these initiatives would build a fairer and more sustainable economy from the ground up, but myriad questions come to the fore in implementing these much-needed initiatives.

What are the key factors inhibiting renewable growth in the African agribusiness markets, and what is the degree of impact of these constraints? What is the impact of state regulations on the growth of the renewables market? More importantly, how are emerging markets for renewables expected to fair in the next few years and how will consumption patterns develop? Many farmers do not yet have a serious buy-in for solar solutions as a means to productive ends. This is not only because of purchase and set-up costs, but also due to an influx of cheap Chinese-made products, with very short lifespans.

Waiting for the rain…

Climate change-induced disasters, in the form of successive droughts and flooding, have placed most sub-Saharan Africans’ livelihoods under direct threat. Devastating cyclones that struck Mozambique, Malawi and parts of Zimbabwe in 2019 are a case in point. The IMF notes that a heavy dependence on rain-fed farming practices and inability to adapt to shocks leaves most Africans vulnerable in terms of food security. Ironically, the same institution does not countenance the idea of state subsidies for credit and inputs but rather advances principles of market liberalism.

As a condition of aid commitments and financial support by Bretton Woods institutions, African countries had to implement disastrous economic structural adjustment programs in the 1980s and 90s. This cutback ended an intricate system of public service provision which gave farmers inputs, credit, insurance, and supportive organization.

However, with growing noise about a green revolution, it isn’t all doom and gloom.

Kenyan-based renewable concern Sunculture operates as a ‘one stop shop’ for clean energy solutions, tailored for smallholder farmers.

The company runs a Pay-As-You-Go financing model which lowers financial barriers for renewables ownership.

“It’s in our best interest as a business for our systems to be working so that our customers are earning the income to pay us back,” said Sunculture chief of staff Mikayla Czajkowski.

Solar powered irrigation allows farmers to unlock existing resources to boost the resilience of their farms that are at the mercy of unpredictable weather patterns.

“Waiting for the rain presents significant challenges, especially as weather patterns become increasingly unreliable due to the effects of climate change; rainwater alone is only sufficient to grow staple, low-value crops like maize and potatoes, and farmers can’t use their fields during dry seasons,” she said.

Czajkowski said that 96% of smallholder farmers in Africa today depend on rain-fed agriculture. As a result, African farmers’ yields trail the world average by 50% and smallholder farmers are the largest group of people living in poverty.

Another innovative company making strides in Rwanda’s renewables market is InspiraFarms. The firm provides small and growing agro businesses in the developing world with tools, technology and expertise to reduce food losses, energy costs and access higher value markets.

The government of Rwanda is pushing for clean and sustainable cooling for agricultural produce and as part of those efforts, the state acquired 10 off-grid packhouses from InspiraFarms with integrated cooling, located in different rural places all over the country. This will help small farmers to reach markets with better product quality and prompt access to the cold chain.

InspiraFarms community and client relations manager Paula Rodriguez notes that one of the reasons farmers do not have access to the cold chain is because they cannot plug into any cooling solution without access to energy. Furthermore, the absence of cold storage and poor transportation are the main drivers of post-harvest losses (PHL).

InspiraFarms then developed off-grid hybrid solutions including solar kits and grid connection in a bid to solve one of the teething issues around bringing the cold chain into the first mile of distribution, particularly close to production points.

“It is very common that the levels of PHL can be higher than 30% as a result of a combination of factors, but a unifying theme is lack of cold chain infrastructure close enough to harvest points and the time lag in between harvest and first cold chain access. This causes high levels of over-maturation and dehydration, with further impact on quality preventing access to valuable export markets,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

Cooling within hours of harvest can extend the shelf-life of many fresh products from weeks to months, as well as providing additional flexibility on export schedules.

Despite this, the cold chain system is still weak or non-existent in some countries. In rural areas most farmers in the first mile of distribution lack the infrastructure required for developing the cold chain, such as grid connection.

A season for everything

Senior researcher with the South African-based Institute for Security Studies Requier Wait argues that the fusion of agriculture and solar power can boost sustainable development.

Integrating solar power with agricultural practices can reduce demand for wood energy while creating low carbon economies.

“For example, elevated solar photovoltaic panels are used to shelter crops planted beneath, referred to as agrophotovoltaic projects. This can increase yields while conserving the land space used for solar panels in confined urban spaces,” states Wait in a paper.

Solar power remains beyond the reach of many farmers, yet it can be a means to an end in terms of output and productivity. The basic reality in sub-Saharan African countries is that small scale farmers do not have access to capital to set up solar infrastructure.

Tanzanian-based mini grid operator Jumeme, serves as a model that showcases the broad benefits to local communities of investment in renewable energy and fish farming.

Jumeme runs a pilot project that buys fish from local fishermen, processing and freezing them using its own renewable power onsite and then selling the fish to distributors across Tanzania. Fishermen have reaped benefits from this green initiative as they now have access to bigger markets with higher prices in turn.

Jumeme head of sales and marketing Robert Wang’oe said the use of mini grids could be a solution to farmers’ inability to access pricey solar kits for their farms, especially where farmers are clustered or in reasonable proximity of each other.

“A private public partnership between farmers and a private investor would be one of the proposed ways to go about this. This could be a mitigation measure to the high costs of setting up stand alone systems for individual farmers,” he said.

He suggests that in cases where farmers are scarce, individual renewable energy systems make much more sense and this is where programmed subsidies, with monitoring from relevant government bodies, would make sense.

Not to be outdone in the renewables and agribusiness matrix, South African farmers now have the opportunity to access reliable solar energy, thanks to a partnership between a renewable concern, Jaguar New Energies, and a Dutch government-supported fund. Set-up costs will be covered by the clean energy fund and this will enable farmers to have access to cheaper, clean energy while making a quicker transition to a reliable and consistent power source.

Due to these massive green energy rollouts, South African maize production in 2020 is projected to be more than 30% higher than in previous years.

For Wang’oe of Jumeme, African governments need to implement a raft of measures in order to develop and implement policies that expedite renewable energy rollout for the agricultural sector. These include decentralization of electricity production and distribution grids, introduction of tax rebates for farmers who use renewable energy in their production cycles and introduction of carbon credits for farmers using renewable energy to run their farms.

“With the right policies, research, data collection and publishing in place, [renewable energy] has the capacity for poverty eradication ensuring food security, ensuring farmers produce enough for the local and international markets, supporting an ecosystem of businesses and related sectors such as agronomy and engineering,” said Wang’oe.

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