Empowering Smallholder Farmers: Harnessing Renewable Energy for Improved Agriculture Productivity

“Addressing the challenges faced by smallholder farmers requires collaborative efforts between governments, development organisations, and the private sector”

Smallholder farmers, the backbone of Africa’s food production

Smallholder farmers are small-scale farmers, pastoralists, forest keepers, and fish farmers who manage areas varying from less than 1 hectare to 10 hectares. These farmers are characterised by family-focused motives such as favouring the stability of the farm household system, using mainly family labour for production and using part of the produce for family consumption (FAO). Despite the modest scale and output of these farmers which may be dwarfed by their larger, industrial counterparts, their collective impact is anything but minimal as they are considered the backbone of African food production. According to recent research, farms smaller than 5 acres produce roughly 35% of the world’s food, and smallholders provide up to 80% of the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa. They grow a diverse range of crops and raise livestock, contributing significantly to food security ambitions and nutrition in their communities and beyond. 

Food Waste in Africa Image Source: Anglican Alliance

Access to renewable energy a shot-in-the-arm for smallholder farmer productivity

While small-scale farmers play a critical role in food supply, many of these farmers in low-income countries encounter a myriad of challenges that impede their productivity and jeopardise food security within these regions. These include inadequate climate change adaptation tools, limited policy support, insufficient access to inputs and extension services, insufficient financial coverage, public health issues, and infrastructure bottlenecks. Among these, access to energy for farm management in changing climate conditions, output processing and storage emerge as significant issues leading to sub-optimised food systems, especially around post-harvest losses. Energy is indispensable for smallholder farmers throughout the agricultural value chain. It powers irrigation for crop and livestock needs in primary production and drives machinery like tractors during planting, cultivation, and harvesting. Furthermore, energy is vital for processing crops and preserving them in storage, crucial for maintaining quality and minimizing post-harvest losses. The magnitude of food losses in sub-Saharan Africa remains unacceptably high, with estimates from the FAO indicating substantial losses in cereals (approximately 20%), root crops, fruits, and vegetables (40-50%), and fish (33%) in 2011. However, it’s important to note that there are no recent statistics on post-harvest losses on these products in SSA from the FAO, and these figures are likely to have increased due to the worsening effects of climate change on farms over the years. These losses are further exacerbated by various technical limitations such as inadequate processing and storage facilities, which hinder effective preservation and contribute to increased spoilage of harvested crops. Climate change on the other hand is disrupting traditional agricultural practices, with about 97% of smallholder farmers relying on rain, which is becoming increasingly unreliable and inefficient. Furthermore, research has suggested that in SSA, post-harvest food losses attributed to improper storage are estimated to be worth over US$4 billion per year, which is estimated at roughly 37% or 120–170 kg per capita, enough to feed at least 48 million people. Renewable energy presents an economically viable and environmentally flexible solution to address these, significantly enhancing productivity, and improving food insecurity outcomes. (FAO, 2019) FAO.

Bringing affordable and renewable energy to smallholder farmers. Image Source: Sunculture

Strong use cases for renewable energy in improving smallholder farmer productivity

Renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels, biogas digesters, and mini-grid systems, hold immense promise for addressing the energy needs of smallholder farmers. By harnessing the power of renewable sources, farmers can adapt to changing climate conditions and enhance productivity. Solar panels power irrigation systems, ensuring reliable water access for crops, especially during dry seasons, thus mitigating the impact of climate change on water availability. Biogas digesters convert organic waste into clean energy for cooking and heating, reducing reliance on traditional fuels and improving air quality. Additionally, mini-grid systems provide decentralised energy solutions, enabling farmers to access electricity for machinery, processing facilities, and refrigeration, thereby minimising post-harvest losses. These use cases demonstrate how renewable energy technologies empower farmers to adapt to climate change, mitigate losses, and improve overall agricultural efficiency.

Solar-powered irrigation system. Image Source: Sunculture 

In Ghana, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has partnered with the government to implement the Ghana Energy Development and Access Project (GEDAP), which includes the distribution of solar-powered water pumps to smallholder farmers. These pumps enable farmers to access groundwater for irrigation, leading to increased crop yields and improved food security. The pumps are capable of watering up to a total of 15 hectares of land and the solar panels with a capacity of 22.5 kilowatts deliver up to 1 million litres of water each day. The UNDP reports that smallholder farmers using solar-powered water pumps have seen crop yields increase by up to 60%. In Kenya, the Rockefeller Foundation’s YieldWise initiative, in collaboration with TechnoServe and the Kenyan government, introduced solar-powered cold storage units in rural areas to help smallholder farmers preserve their perishable produce, such as fruits and vegetables. The initiative saw about 82% of farmers adopt at least one post-harvest loss-reducing technology. This led to increased preservation and an overall loss reduction from 24% at baseline to 16% at the end of the project phase.

Empowering small-scale farmers in SSA Image Source: CIO Africa

As promising as these use cases are, barriers still exist 

Although renewable energy holds numerous benefits for farmers, smallholders in particular face several barriers to adoption. Most small-scale farmers cultivating less than five acres make up a significant portion of the world’s poor who live on less than $2 a day (World Bank 2016). In Nigeria alone, around 72% of these smallholder farmers live below $1.9 a day. As a result, upfront costs associated with purchasing and installing renewable energy systems, such as solar panels or biogas digesters, often pose a significant financial burden for these farmers. Additionally, there is insufficient technical knowledge and expertise among many farmers regarding the installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy technologies. This knowledge gap further hinders farmers’ ability to transition to sustainable energy sources. Overcoming these challenges requires comprehensive approaches that address financial constraints, provide technical training and support, and create an enabling policy environment conducive to renewable energy adoption among smallholder farmers.

Making renewable energy affordable for smallholder farmers Image Source: Welthungerhilfe

Providing incentives to reduce barriers to renewable energy adoption

Addressing these challenges requires collaborative efforts between governments, development organisations, and the private sector. To scale up the adoption of these solutions, it is imperative to outline potential pathways for expanding access to financing, increasing awareness and education, and creating an enabling environment for renewable energy investments in agriculture. Firstly, governments can play a crucial role in providing financial incentives, such as subsidies or tax breaks, to make renewable energy systems more affordable for smallholder farmers. This means that renewable energy access has to be part of the wider agriculture productivity policy mechanism, backed by the necessary political will for policy implementation. Development organisations can support capacity-building programs to enhance farmers’ technical knowledge and skills in utilising renewable energy technologies effectively.

Sustainable energy for smallholder farmers. Image Source: Welthungerhilfe

Private sector investments can be catalytic

Fundamentally, private sector-led approaches can play a pivotal role in bridging these gaps, ultimately leading to the agriculture sector’s transition to climate-smart agriculture (CSA) and consequently, substantial reductions in post-harvest loss. One effective approach is through public-private partnerships (PPPs), where the private sector collaborates with governments and development organisations to deliver renewable energy services to farmers. For example, private sector entities specialising in renewable energy technologies can offer innovative financing options tailored to the needs of smallholder farmers, such as pay-as-you-go schemes or leasing arrangements, to make investments more accessible. The private sector can also provide technical expertise and support for the installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems, addressing the knowledge gap among farmers. Furthermore, the private sector can leverage its networks and distribution channels to increase access to renewable energy products and services in rural areas. By partnering with agribusinesses and farmer cooperatives, private sector entities can promote the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, such as precision irrigation and sustainable crop management, enabled by renewable energy technologies. This holistic approach not only enhances agricultural productivity and resilience to climate change but also contributes to significant reductions in food loss along the value chain. 

Through the concerted efforts of the private sector, governments, and development organisations, smallholder farmers can embrace renewable energy solutions, transform their farming practices, and build more sustainable and prosperous agricultural systems, benefitting both farmers and the environment. 

featured image source: Rice Today

At Sawubona, we support private sector organisations to identify opportunities for programmes that deliver commercial viability and social impact. You can reach out to us at info@sawubonang.com for a free consultation to discuss your project idea. 

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