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Rethinking irrigation farming

The agriculture sector is the single largest employer in the world, sustaining the livelihood of 40 percent of the population, many of whom live in dire poverty, 2015 United Nations report says.

Therefore, increasing productivity in the agriculture sector is widely recognised as one of the most effective ways to fight poverty and stimulate socio-economic development. In fact, for every 10 percent increase in farm yield, there has been an estimated seven percent reduction in poverty in Africa.

But the sector faces increasing climate variability that brings unpredictable, insufficient or too much rainfall.

In sub-Saharan Africa, food is produced mainly on rain-fed agriculture of which approximately 95 percent of farmed land relies on seasonal rains to meet water needs, 2010 International Water Management Institute report says. But the biggest challenge is that productivity on these farms can be particularly low, resulting in food insecurity and poverty for many of the subsistence and smallholder farmers.

It is against this background that players in the agriculture sector are devising ways to overcome some of the challenges. And irrigation is touted of having the potential to exploit the ground or surface water that is available and give greater yields of crops than that which is rain-fed.

Within the broad spectrum of solutions, solar-powered irrigation has gained prominence lately. Solar irrigation has substantially lower environmental threats compared to traditional options.

Realising this, a known charity, Stephanos Foundation, has embarked on solar-powered irrigation projects in two districts in the country; Chikwawa and Blantyre.

A visit to Katemalinga Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Maseya in Chikwawa treats you to a spectacle: farmers in summer harvesting maize from 10 hectares that is being irrigated by a solar panel.

Stephanos Programmes Manager, Chimwemwe Hara, says the solar irrigation project is a costly initiative but its long-term returns are outstanding as farmers are able to harvest twice or thrice a year, all owing to the efficient and reliable energy-sourced irrigation.

“It’s a big investment for us. These two projects in Chikwawa and Blantyre have cost us 60, 400 euros. The 2016 Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Report indicated that the Shire Valley and Blantyre Rural are some of the districts that are worse hit by hunger and the Global Acute Malnutrition in the Shire Valley is at 6.6 percent, which is the poorest.

“In order to alleviate the plight of the projected 6.5 million people in dire need of food, we ventured in this project. We are happy to see farmers now making a summer harvest in Chikwawa,” he says.

Katemalinga Solar Irrigation Scheme has 120 famers and the scheme Secretary, Lyn Jones, says the solar-powered irrigation system provides a safety net for farmers, reducing their daily task to a weekly or bi-weekly activity as it takes only a few minutes to water each plant bed, saving women and aged farmers up to four hours a day.

“The coming of this solar-powered irrigation system has made irrigation farming easy unlike treadle pumps, which are laborious and energy-consuming. We could leave the gardens crushed to the core so that no molecule of energy was reserved to execute conjugal obligations home. This explains why the solar irrigation has been embraced here,” Jones says.

The scheme, which sits on the banks of the Shire River, wears different foliage ranging from maize, tomatoes, onions, bananas, sweet potatoes, okra and many more.

Catherine Bester owns a half hectare on the scheme where she cultivates onions. The first harvest on the scheme saw her build a decent house and she plans to buy a motorcycle if she sells the second harvest that is due but is faced with unscrupulous and profiteering buyers.

“Farming is now made easy using solar but the biggest challenge now is markets. The buyers I’m getting offer as low as K2, 000 on a bed of onion. I would love if they offered K4, 000 or more. Can other stakeholders help us find potential buyers so that our sweat sweetens our lives,” she says.

Village Head Songa 1, who was among the farmers I found harvesting from the scheme, describes the project, as a revolutionary endeavour. He says, for long, farmers were unable to use the 10 hectares to its optimum productivity as they were unable to pump the water from the Shire River using treadle pumps.

For daring and determined farmers, they could manage to irrigate the crops to a tassling stage and throw in the towel perhaps in the flowering stage due to high intake of water the crops demand at that stage.

The results were wilting and underdeveloped cobs resulting from high humidity in the Shire Valley.

“This is our second harvest following the first in May. The scheme is big with a considerable number of farmers, as such one solar plant we are currently using fails to serve us all. We asked for another solar pump so that we can be farming thrice a year and rotate the crops.

We are happy that Stephanos is in the course of erecting another solar plant,” the traditional leader says.

The solar irrigation magic is also felt in Nseule Village in T/A Kuntaja in Blantyre where 42 farmers have established a solar irrigation scheme courtesy of Stephanos Foundation.

Chairperson for the scheme, Dickson Rabson, calls on government to embrace the solar irrigation initiative as it can help many farmers along the perennial rivers cultivate twice or thrice a year, thereby complementing the Green Belt Initiative that government promotes.

“We have good alluvial soils along the Shire River here. But the river is infested with crocodiles that pose a threat to farmers warding into the waters to draw water using cans to irrigate crops. Besides, the solar plant is effective and efficient. We are weeding our maize and soon we will be harvesting,” Rabson says.

In sub-Saharan Africa, surveys indicate, only five percent of farmland is irrigated. While irrigated agriculture represents only 20 percent of the total cultivated area worldwide, it provides 40 percent of total food produced globall y.

To increase yields and cope with rising demand for food, the land area under irrigation will need to expand but this would translate into increased use of water as well as energy.

And there can never be a viable source of energy for irrigation than the efficiency and effectiveness that come with solar-powered plants. As the world advocates green energy in all production and consumption spheres, it is high time the country took a second thought and embrace green energy in irrigation farming.

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