iDE strongly believes in supporting private companies and entrepreneurs that can create markets and drive innovation for smallholder farmers.
Smallholder farmers have increasingly stopped using buckets to irrigate their crops. What was once commonplace was replaced by manually-operated pumps at first, then by small petrol pumps, that reduced both labor and time. What made this possible was the creation of micro businesses led by local entrepreneurs who were trained by iDE and others to learn about the customers and the marketplace and design or adapt appropriate solutions.
Powered irrigation for smallholders is on the verge of yet another evolutionary shift, from petrol pumps to solar-powered pumps.
Over the last decade, iDE, with the assistance of funding partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, USAID, Sida, and German Cooperation has supported the development of the SF1 pump through a partnership with the PRACTICA Foundation and the 2017 Ashden Award winning social enterprise, Futurepump.
Case Study: Futurepump
The vision for solar pumps that were affordable for smallholders started in the early 2000s. iDE noticed some farmers who had initially invested in the treadle pump began to use their savings to switch to diesel-powered pumps. Even so, many farmers had problems making that leap because of the price difference (e.g., a treadle pump cost less than US$10, while the cheapest diesel pump from China cost US$200). In 2006, iDE partnered with the PRACTICA Foundation, a research and development organization in Switzerland, to identify a low-cost, energy-efficient solution for smallholders that could be easily manufactured locally. PRACTICA carried out design and development activities for five different options: a deep-set small-bore pump, a rope pump that could be either manually- or engine-powered, a micro-diesel pump that could be operated on biodiesel, a wind-powered pump, and a solar (photovoltaic or thermal) pump. Each option had pros and cons associated with it, but the bottom line for each was the need to be able to compete in the marketplace with the cheapest diesel pumps.
The one design that emerged was the SF1. In the years between 2006 and 2012, the average cost of photovoltaic panels dropped from US$4/Watt to US$1/Watt. What had been the highest component cost of the system was now only a sixth of the total cost. While the SF1 at US$600 is still more than the cost of diesel pumps, which range from US$200-500, the annual fuel savings in one year (estimated at US$500/hectare for a diesel pump) makes it a better value proposition in the long run.
An entrepreneur named Toby Hammond saw a YouTube video about the development of the SF1 and became excited about its potential for change. A discussion in 2012 between iDE, PRACTICA, and Hammond resulted in the creation of Futurepump with Hammond as its CEO. With funding provided by SDC through iDE, PRACTICA would continue research and development of the pump; iDE would continue to gather user insights and feedback from field-testing and market research; and Futurepump would take over the manufacturing, distribution, and sales. As a social enterprise, Futurepump attracted additional investment to build its supply chain and retail networks as well as create its own in-country test center in Kenya.
After ten years of research and development, the SF1 and Futurepump are poised to spur a new smallholder revolution similar to the one treadle pumps accomplished in the 1980s and 1990s. Recently, Futurepump won the 2017 Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy and Water, where the judges cited, “Futurepump’s solar-powered irrigation technology is helping farmers irrigate more land and leapfrog to year-round sustainable crop growing which is simultaneously increasing their productivity and income as well as allowing them to move away from polluting fuels.”