Across Africa, many rural communities still depend on manual and animal power for their farm needs, whether it is for production, harvesting or postharvest activities. In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, engine power represents a meagre 10 per cent of all energy used on farms, compared to 50 per cent in developing regions.
Without access to mechanised tools and technologies, farming is a tough, laborious and time-consuming process. Farmers are often left with small harvests, low incomes, and poor food and nutrition security. Those who do have access to energy are often reliant on unsustainable sources such as fuelwood, charcoal or farm residues, which exacerbate air pollution and deforestation.
Improving access to reliable and sustainable energy sources offers the promise and potential of transforming the lives of entire populations across the African continent, whether it is by reducing the drudgery of farm work, generating higher incomes or improving the health and well-being of millions.
Based on the findings from our new report, Energized: Policy innovations to power the transformation of Africa's agriculture and food system, we have identified some promising avenues along the entire agri-value chain.
Firstly, embracing the full suite of energy solutions available can help farmers throughout the planting season. Small-scale, micro and nano solutions offer a range of possible energy sources, tailored specifically to the needs of farmers.
And when African farmers have 10 times fewer mechanised tools than farmers in other developing regions, these solutions can urgently address the fact that access has not grown in line with need.
Renewable energy sources can provide a clean, sustainable and reliable way to ease the slog of farm work, whilst meeting increased food demand created by rapid population growth, urbanisation and a rise in middle-class consumers with a growing taste for different foods.
Solar-powered pumps, for instance, are already being effectively used to minimise the arduous process of irrigating crops. In northern Benin, solar-powered drip irrigation pumps were installed on small plots around half a hectare large. Families were able to grow and consume more nutritious food, as well as increase their income, compared to families that still used hand-watering methods.
And when compared with households using gas-powered pumps, these solar-irrigation methods were more cost-effective over time and ultimately better for the environment as they do not emit greenhouse gases (GHG).
Secondly, improved, off-grid technologies that allow cooling, chilling, pressing and drying of harvested crops can effectively reduce post-harvest losses, improving profitability and productivity on farms.
In Kenya, for instance, due to a lack of sufficient storage and transportation infrastructure, around half of the milk produced does not reach dairy producers and is effectively wasted.
To address this, SunDanzer, in collaboration with Winrock International, developed a small-scale, solar-powered portable cooling system. The system significantly reduces the amount of spoiled milk, increasing productivity and incomes whilst being a reliable and sustainable method of storage. It is estimated that by scaling this system across Kenya, around one million dairy farmers can benefit.
Likewise, in Cameroon, farmers are often forced to sell their produce for lower prices due to a lack of capacity to process large harvests. But, a low-cost, ventilated gas dryer allows farmers to dry these crops, meaning they can be sold to more distant and profitable markets. These gas dryers work across several types of produce, including greens, mushrooms, fruits, spices, meat and fish.
Thirdly, embracing clean energy sources can also help address the challenges that arise when African households cook food, thereby improving the health and well-being of millions. Millions of Africans cook indoors, in poorly ventilated spaces, burning wood, crop residues and animal dung as fuel. This releases harmful fumes, which are said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 Africans who breathe in this toxic air.
That is why the government of Mali gave out 500,000 fuel efficient cookstoves to reduce the reliance on traditional sources of biomass, like wood and crop residues. Compared to a three-stone fire, the use of these stoves reduced the average household spend on fuel by a quarter and the amount of air pollution by half. And as deforestation and climate change makes biomass resources scarcer, these kinds of clean energy sources will become even more integral for cooking.
By pulling together the range of technologies already available across the agri-value chain, including solar-powered irrigation and gas dryers, we can ensure that Africa overcomes many of the challenges it now finds itself facing. From heightened food demand to deforestation, an energy-smart food system has the potential to have a transformative effect for the lives of millions of smallholder farmers across the continent.
Karim El Aynaoui is President of the Policy Center for the New South and Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences of the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University. He is also a member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel.