Practical Action has over 40 years of experience in the energy access space. Over this time we have been involved in over 500 mini-grids projects, created thousands of jobs, published extensively on rural electrification technologies and approaches, and are now pioneering new approaches to building markets for energy access services, both on the ground and through our political and financial advocacy work and innovative partnerships such as Power for All.
Gwanda district has a low average rainfall of less than 450 mm per annum,28 yet rain-fed agriculture dominates. This coupled with climate change means that crop failures have become increasingly frequent and food security is being compromised. As the area is off-grid and remote, access to energy for irrigation has been a challenge. While diesel-powered irrigation schemes had been established previously, they have become dysfunctional due to high costs and difficulties accessing fuel.
The project installed 31 stand-alone solar systems (1.36-3.6kW each) to pump water from boreholes and two solar systems (4.08 kW and 37.62 kW peak) pumping water from dams. The water is pumped to irrigation schemes ranging from 4 to 25 hectares in size and smaller gardens ranging from 0.5 to 2.5 hectares in size. The solar pumping units have no batteries, however, water storage tanks are installed as a backup. For the larger schemes, a diesel engine was installed as a backup.
All beneficiaries were trained in operation and maintenance (O&M) and community level irrigation management structures were formed which include O&M committees. The training was done in collaboration with local staff from the Agriculture Ministry who will remain in direct contact with the community to provide technical backstopping and mentoring.
The DRE solution was coupled with agronomic skill-building and participatory market systems development to empower farmers to better understand and engage in markets.
The total project cost was EUR 1,900,000, grant-funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The DRE system is community-owned with a monitoring and oversight role by the rural district council. Internal saving and lending groups have been established with their profits channelled into a maintenance fund.
The area under agricultural production has almost doubled to about 143 hectares, with significant yield increases. The 422 households involved have gone from subsistence farming to be able to sell excess produce, thus improving their livelihoods.
The introduction of solar energy has been no silver bullet. It has been important to ensure that water and energy are utilised efficiently through water management practices and proper O&M of the equipment. This requires refresher training and easy access to after-sales support.
To address financing challenges for smallholder farmers, equipment suppliers and financial institutions have to work together to come up with tailored financing/payment packages.
The project has so far been replicated in the form of two projects expanding into other wards of Gwanda district reaching an additional 900 farming households.