Solar irrigation offers a bright future for African smallholders

Sometimes the answer really does fall from the sky. As African farmers look to move away from expensive, polluting and carbon-emitting diesel pumps, solar-powered irrigation offers vast potential to boost agriculture across the continent. In addition to saving money and reducing the environmental impacts of farming, solar irrigation can strengthen water security, increase food production and improve nutrition for millions of Africa’s off-grid smallholders.

However, many farmers struggle to afford the upfront cost of switching to solar irrigation. This is especially true for female farmers, who are less likely to own land or have access to the credit needed to invest. On top of this, solar manufacturers and distributors have struggled to expand operations in Africa due to a lack of information about the potential market. IWMI has been working with farmers and the private sector in Ethiopia, Ghana and Mali to overcome these challenges and make solar irrigation affordable, accessible and profitable for everyone along the irrigation value chain.

Innovation bundles overcome barriers to solar irrigation

In Ghana, IWMI has teamed up with Pumptech, a national distributor of solar irrigation equipment with a special focus on off-grid water pumping, to find ways to better understand and reach smallholders. This has centered on developing a bundle of solar irrigation technologies and services that addresses many of the current barriers to solar-powered, farmer-led irrigation.

To ensure this bundle reflects the real needs of smallholders, IWMI and Pumptech worked with farmers and other stakeholders to break down the potential solar irrigation market into distinct categories. This market segmentation allows companies such as Pumptech to tailor their products and services to specific groups and reach new customers. These new customers include women and youth, who have traditionally struggled to access solar irrigation technologies.

An essential component of these bundles is innovative financial models such as pay-as-you-go and pay-as-you-own. The pay-as-you-go option allows resource-poor and resource-limited farmers to use pumps and pay for each unit of water accessed while ownership of the pump remains with the provider. The pay-as-you-own option allows farmers to use a pump while paying installments to own it, preventing the need for upfront payments to purchase a pump. The installments can be paid at regular intervals – weekly, monthly or quarterly – or scheduled to coincide with harvest times, when farmers have more cash in hand. This flexibility means that a greater number and diversity of smallholders can access solar irrigation technologies. To facilitate pay-as-you-go financing, IWMI and Pumptech organized demand–supply linkage workshops and demonstrations attended by 2,514 value chain actors, including farmers, the private sector entities, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Private-sector collaboration in Ghana and Ethiopia

IWMI has continued to develop and build upon these initiatives in 2022. One of its latest innovations has been the co-development of internship and innovation grants. In 2022, these grants enabled two young professionals to intern at Pumptech, where they helped develop digital data management and marketing systems to improve the effectiveness of the company’s customer targeting. Internships such as these are not only helping solar irrigation manufacturers and distributors reach smallholders, but are also nurturing a new generation of Ghanaian solar irrigation experts.

Thanks partly to IWMI’s support, Pumptech has established 17 distribution networks, identified 862 potential customers for its smallholder-targeted PS2 pumps, and seen its sales increase by more than 80% in 2021.

Equally encouraging numbers are emerging from Ethiopia, where IWMI has partnered with renewable energy company Rensys to offer similar technology and service bundles to smallholders. As a result of this partnership, almost 100 farmers have acquired solar irrigation technologies – 18 under a pay-as-you-go arrangement – and nearly 300 more have expressed interest in buying a solar pump.

Affordable irrigation for Africa

The past year saw IWMI continue its research into solar irrigation in Africa. This included a study of the irrigation supply chain in Ghana based on in-depth interviews with farmers, importers, manufacturers, distributors, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, as well as investigating the opportunities for greater inclusion of women and youth in the country’s irrigated vegetable value chain. IWMI also published a technical brief on evidence-based strategies to accelerate innovative irrigation technologies in Africa and a report on the potential for irrigation market development in Ghana.

Together with IWMI’s collaborations with African businesses, this research is helping to make solar irrigation affordable and accessible to smallholders across the continent. This will provide a vital boost in the race to increase African food production, improve food security and strengthen climate resilience.

Disclaimer: IWMI does not endorse particular brands of solar pumps. Smallholder farmers may access this technology through the provider of their choice.


We gratefully acknowledge the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) projects for their contributions.