Embedding decentralised renewable energy in agriculture & food

By Seth Silverman and Benson Kibiti

Solar energy can not only address Africa's problem of electricity, but also have a major impact on scaling food production and safeguarding food security. But that requires a much more integrated approach that bridges the current divide between the agriculture and energy sectors. 

Many countries in Africa produce surplus power even as many industries like agriculture, which takes place in remote rural areas, remain under-powered or without energy access altogether. Decentralized renewable energy solutions, like mini-grids, are emerging as a solution.

minigridsSolar energy is a low-cost form of power in much of Africa, but agriculture often requires large amounts of power at relatively infrequent or even seasonal intervals. Innovation is needed, and a growing cohort of companies are working to tackle the problem. S4S uses the sun’s heat energy and electricity to dry produce on site, reduce spoilage and increase logistical efficiency. 

Solar energy can also play an important role in powering cold storage. Well-designed solutions, like Inspira Farms, take electricity generated when the sun is shining (or when the grid is up) and turn it into stored cooling potential for later. Inspira Farms has been delivered to dozens of export and agricultural trading customers across East and Southern Africa. Recently, Inspira Farms rolled out super-efficient off-grid cold storage units in partnership with the Rwandan Government. These units use 70% less energy than traditional systems, have thermal backup capacity, and are expected to benefit as many as 100,000 rural smallholder farmers as they seek to become connected to larger markets. 

Energy solutions such as these have significant implications for reducing post-harvest loss (i.e. food waste) and the associated loss in farmer’s income, squandered resources (inputs, soil nutrients, water), major environmental impacts (including heat trapping emissions), and a loss of nutrition and food security for so many people across Africa.

Comprehensive business models that leverage technological innovation to add value to farming are critical, as is generating more data that allows governments (agriculture and energy ministries alike) to best identify the right power solution for a given context. Without it, farmers, agribusinesses, governments, and others will not know where to invest in the sector. But this data needs to be contextualized, analysed, and put into action by competent and effective private and public actors.

farmer

Microgrids, for example, have the potential to be the fastest and most effective way to deliver electricity to farming communities. However, they often struggle when they cannot find large consumers of electricity. Data will allow governments to coordinate with private mini-grid developers to identify regions where the construction of decentralised electricity infrastructure is required to match commercial, tradeable agricultural activity (including processing and cold storage).

Or consider the question of irrigation: there are many initiatives promoting solar irrigation that have struggled to reach commercial scale. This is, in part, because it is rare that pump providers truly know where their customers are. Learnings from this analysis by Apollo Agriculture mapped farmer location, infrastructure (water line and electricity connection), crop type, irradiance (i.e. sunshine maps), and hydrology and water resources to identify where farmers need irrigation. This information can also be matched with credit scoring information that is specific to farmers.  

The opportunity for renewable energy-driven agriculture in Africa is possible. Greater inter-sectoral coordination, greater public-private partnership and greater innovation and data are required to seize it. 

 

Want to learn more about renewable energy mini-grids?

 

Photo credit: IWMI and www.jeffreymwalcott.com