An Island of Green in Ghana: Smallholder Farmers Adapt to Climate Change with Solar Irrigation
On a small farm of less than five acres, the Assime family grows sorghum, rice, peppers and okra, and keeps a brood of chickens. The family eats part of the crops they harvest and some they sell. Like other farming families in the Upper East Region of Ghana, they work the fields themselves, but also sometimes hire labor to help.
What sets the Assime family apart is that come October, when the rains end and the dry season sets in, their farm will stand out as an island of green, while other fields around them turn yellow and bare.
A closer look at the Assime farm reveals why: at the center of their farm, near their house, solar panels and a solar-powered irrigation pump have been installed. The pump has enabled the family to overcome increasing and lengthy dry spells and to keep on growing crops past the end of the rainy season and throughout the dry season.
As the Assimes have found, solar-powered irrigation is enabling farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to adapt to a changing climate. It bypasses many of the infrastructure and energy constraints that rural farmers face and offer a relatively affordable way for farmers to boost their climate resilience. That’s why the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) is conducting research with a wide variety of partners to pinpoint where and how even more smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa can enjoy the benefits of solar-powered irrigation.
Great potential in Ghana, Ethiopia and Mali
The potential for solar-powered irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa is high, as demonstrated by research conducted by ILSSI partner, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). A cost comparison for the region highlighted that in some West African countries, including Ghana and Mali, solar photovoltaic technology tends to be a more economical energy solution to power irrigation.
Within specific countries — including Ghana, Ethiopia and Mali — solar-powered irrigation is more suitable in some regions than in others, according to assessments made by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), also an ILSSI partner. These suitability assessments consider production factors, including solar irradiation, groundwater levels, aquifer productivity, groundwater storage, proximity to rivers, proximity to small dams, crop and land suitability, and travel time to markets. For Ghana, the study considered groundwater up to a depth of 25 meters and surface water resources, finding that approximately 2.3 million hectares are suitable for solar-powered irrigation.
Accessing the availability of water resources that can be used for irrigation — now, but also as climate change impacts intensify in the future — is also critical for determining whether solar-powered irrigation is a sustainable solution for farmers. In Ghana for example, ILSSI research indicates that the land area currently suitable for surface irrigation is likely to decrease more than 9% by 2050 under climate change — a projection that can help decision-makers plan for climate resilience at larger scales into the future.
Overall, these findings — that point out where solar-powered irrigation can help farmers increase their climate resilience — enable private companies, public agencies and development implementers to plan where to target their investments and support.
Understanding systemic interaction
At the same time, research provides the information necessary to understand the systemic interaction of various drivers of the economic, environmental and social sustainability of agricultural production toward avoiding maladaptation. Analysis through tools, including agent-based modeling, has identified significant potential for small-scale irrigation to enable farmers to adapt now, such as shown in an ILSSI-supported analysis in Ethiopia. Policy and regulatory efforts must also be made to ensure that water and other natural resources are developed sustainably.
Similarly, farmers need access to credit and finance to be able to make the initial investment in a solar-powered pump. In the case of the Assimes, the family was able to use income they made outside the farm to purchase a solar-powered pump, while PEG Africa, an ILSSI private sector partner, helped them with pump operation and maintenance, as well as integrated cropping and agronomic practices.
But not all smallholder farmers have the means to make such an investment. Therefore, ILSSI is collaborating with private sector partners, including PEG Africa, to use applied research to learn how to increase farmers’ access to credit for irrigation in Ghana.
Knowledge partnerships for irrigation expansion
Back in Ghana’s Upper East Region, Mrs. Assime, a teacher, brought out her notebook and showed me her farm expenses and income since purchasing the pump. Using the pump for supplemental irrigation, the family grew both rice and sorghum, storing the rice for their own use and selling the sorghum at the market. During the dry season, they continued to grow pepper and okra, also primarily for sale.
Mrs. Assime then showed me another piece of land cleared recently where she will grow kenaf alongside the vegetables. She also mentioned how she now has more time available since she no longer needs to walk 2 kilometers to collect water for the household, chickens and crops.
Expanding farmers’ access to solar-powered pumps has been relatively slow in sub-Saharan Africa, but research supported by Feed the Future is enabling knowledge partnerships across sectors and regions to accelerate the process. Equally important, the research results are providing a better understanding of the policies and initiatives needed to ensure that even more farmers like the Assimes can cope with climate change impacts.