Farmers in central Kenya are raising large investments to buy into solar powered irrigation systems that are then cost-free, saving them thousands of shillings a month and making their water go much farther, even in times of drought. Farmers in the expansive Mwea Constituency of Kirinyaga District, known traditionally for rice growing, have been investing in solar panels standing on tall metal poles 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 drip irrigation pipes to irrigate the farms.
The solar technology represents a large investment. A solar pump with eight panels costs around Sh1.2m (about $14,000). However, most of the farmers in the area have started with the smallest possible unit, with two solar panels, costing them roughly Sh300,000, which, together with a tank and irrigation pipes, enables them to irrigate half an acre.
Farmers have traditionally relied on diesel or petrol engines to pump water, but rising oil prices have made these pumps expensive to run, turning attention to the solar alternatives.
"A farmer using a diesel pump spends up to Sh5,000 a day (about $60) to pump water to a medium piece of land," said Mutua, a horticultural farmer in Mwea who has invested in the solar powered pumps. “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.”
Unlike diesel engines, the solar technology is also environmentally clean, emitting no pollution or climate changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Joseph Mutua is one of many farmers who have begun using solar-powered pumps to bring water from the Nyamindi River to irrigate their export-bound food crops, which include French beans, baby corn and kale.
"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.
The solar powered pumps are also helping to conserve water from the Nayamindi river, where low rainfall has been causing the river to dry up at certain times of the year.
Experts say the solar technology replaces inefficient irrigation methods, such as flooding furrows with water, which is quickly soaked into the soil endangering water supplies.
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.
"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.
"Flooding takes 20 cubic metres of water per acre, while drip irrigation takes only 2 cubic metres per acre," said Munge.
Farmers in America and Australia where this kind of technology has taken root use the solar pump technology to distribute water through over 5 kilometers of pipeline.
In Kirinyaga, some farmers are also now harvesting runoff water, which they are collecting in underground reservoirs. The water can be used for irrigation during the dry season and also pumped to fields using the solar technology.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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