New Market Research Captures the Potential of Mali’s Solar-Powered Irrigation Sector
This post is written by Thai Thi Minh, senior researcher — innovation scaling at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and Cecily Layzell, IWMI consultant.
A thriving solar panel market forms a solid foundation for boosting small farmers’ uptake of solar-powered irrigation pumps, new research finds
Most smallholder farmers in Mali depend on rain-fed agriculture for food and income. But, repeated cycles of floods and droughts threaten farmers’ livelihoods and food security, increasing the risk of hunger and conflict. Using irrigation to supplement rainfall, both during dry spells and the long dry season, could help protect farmers against weather-related shocks and boost their yields. The falling price of solar photovoltaic panels in recent years has seen solar-powered pumps emerge as a climate-smart irrigation technology in many countries with low access to the national grid.
However, the market for solar-powered irrigation pumps in Mali is underdeveloped. This is despite solar panels being widely used for domestic electricity generation. That’s why the IWMI, under the USAID-funded Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) program, is working with farmers, solar pump suppliers and technicians to improve farmers’ access to information and financing, strengthen distribution networks for solar pumps and, ultimately, boost small-scale, farmer-led irrigation.
IWMI’s approach is based on a model developed in Ghana and Ethiopia to improve links between supply and demand for affordable solar pumps. In Ghana, for instance, IWMI partners with Pumptech, a private pump distributor. Between 2020 and 2021, IWMI’s support helped Pumptech increase sales by 80%. IWMI will apply a similar approach in Mali, adapted to local market conditions.
“The solar panel market in Mali is extremely dynamic,” says Dr. Thai Thi Minh, senior researcher — innovation scaling at IWMI. She and her team recently completed market research in the Koutiala, Lag Wegna and Sikasso regions, which have some of the largest areas suitable for solar-powered irrigation and high rates of malnutrition. “New panels are imported from all over the world, but they are produced in Mali too, which is different from Ghana. There’s also a thriving market in secondhand panels. These are mainly made in Germany and imported to Mali after being used for several years in neighboring countries, like Morocco. Lots of households have small panels of 50-100 watts to generate electricity for lighting their homes, powering a TV and charging mobile phones. These panels aren’t big enough to attach a pump to, but their widespread use means that people are already aware of the benefits of solar power. There’s a solid foundation for increasing the uptake of solar pumps.”
Another promising factor is the falling price of both solar panels and pumps. On average, a secondhand, 250-watt panel costs between 40,000 and 50,000 West African Francs (CFA) ($70-85), down from 105,000 CFA ($183) 10 years ago. Depending on the capacity of the attached pump, between one and three panels of this wattage are needed to produce the desired water flow. Locally produced panels cost around 90,000 CFA ($155). Although this is higher than secondhand panels, the quality is almost the same as new panels manufactured elsewhere.
Among solar pumps, Grundfos (Denmark) and Lorentz (Germany) dominate the high-quality end of the market, while various Chinese brands dominate the other market segments. Grundfos and Lorentz pumps cost in the region of 1 million CFA ($1,745), but can last for a decade or more. Meanwhile, Chinese pumps are half or even a quarter of this price, but many farmers say they have to be replaced after a couple of years.
Local pump assembly
But besides opportunities, there are challenges. One of these obstacles is relatively long and complex supply chains, which make quality harder to control. “The retailers and wholesalers who buy Chinese equipment are mainly supplied from Dubai or neighboring countries in Africa with a seaport. Very few sellers import directly from China or have any influence on the final product,” explains Minh. “But an additional channel has recently emerged. This is the manufacture of pumps in China that are customized to the Malian context. This could eventually lead to local manufacture, as is the case with solar panels.”
Another interesting development is local assembly. Aboubacar Traoré, a technician IWMI researchers interviewed in the city of Sikasso, assembled two pumps using secondhand spare parts from imported pumps. Specifically, he combined the lift mechanism of a Grundfos or Lorentz pump with the motor of a Chinese pump.
A pump’s lifespan is largely determined by a small ring that prevents water running from the lift mechanism into the motor. “The lift mechanism of Chinese pumps quickly becomes damaged because the ring wears down. This is the opposite for Grundfos and Lorentz pumps, whose lift mechanisms are highly durable,” Traoré said. “I’ve used these pumps for three years now and they work well. I use them for car washing, home consumption and anything else that needs water.”
In Mali’s long supply chains, local technicians are a crucial link between pump suppliers and farmers. They identify customers, advise farmers on where and what to buy and provide maintenance services, which many companies are unable to do. The flip side of this is that some of the advice given is intended to maximize the technicians’ profit and not necessarily provide farmers with the best or most suitable irrigation equipment. Indeed, combined with a generally low level of technical knowledge and experience, some farmers have lost a lot of money on irrigation equipment. This discourages other farmers from investing and is a bottleneck for pump companies. With a limited number of their own technicians, companies rely on independent technicians, including to send potential customers their way.
IWMI is helping to address these challenges. Researchers recently carried out market segmentation in Sikasso to identify and segment the farmers interested in investing in solar pumps. Five segments were identified. Each one is slightly different in terms of the amount of water needed, land and water access, pump preferences and capacity to pay for the technology. Solar-powered irrigation companies and technicians are already using this data to target their products and services to the right farmers in the right way.
Other companies will also be approached. “In Ghana, we’ve worked closely with a single company, Pumptech, using, among other things, demand-supply linkages workshops to establish strong distribution networks and significantly increase pump sales,” says Minh. “Now that we’ve validated the approach, we want to accelerate progress in Mali by involving and connecting as many actors in solar pump value chains as we can.”
To do this, IWMI plans to organize the first demand-supply linkages workshop in Sikasso in the next few months. This will bring together value chain actors, from pump suppliers and technicians to farmers, extension agents and input dealers, to improve information exchange, sales and service.
In addition, these actors will be invited to join multistakeholder dialogues already established in Mali. The dialogues engage a broader set of public and private sector participants, including at the regional and national level. This provides opportunities for farmers to find buyers for their irrigated crops and engages government authorities in the creation of an enabling environment for a solar-powered irrigation market that can realize its immense potential.