15 September 2005

Kenya: Using Solar Energy to Grow Trees

Nairobi — A group of farmers in the dry Kajiado District are harvesting sunlight which is abundant in the area to service their 10-acre commercial eucalyptus plantation.

"We are playing with natural energy which otherwise goes to waste to make commercial gains," says Maxwell Kinyanjui the project consultant. The district, which neighbours Nairobi, receives very little rain or sometimes non for the whole year, making it a drought prone area. Residents mainly depend on underground water for their livestock and domestic use.

"To make a difference, says Kinyanjui, we drilled a bore hole to a depth of 60 metres, in order to reach a reliable water level," he adds. Then the Woodland 2000 Trust connected a set of six solar panels to a heavy duty pump.

And now for three years the pump has never stopped pumping water to irrigate our farms, fed livestock and for our domestic use.

The water is pumped into an overhead tank from where it is directed to all corners of the farm through gravity. "We chose eucalyptus farming because it stands out to be the next big cash crop in the country, with a potential of big money," says Kinyanjui.

The little exotic forest stands out in the area because of its ever green canopy, contrasting so beautifully with the dry desert environment around.

The trees planted in this area are however the improved hybrid clones, mainly from South Africa. "We have discovered that deserts have some of the most fertile soils with a potential of producing agricultural food crops as well as cash crops of all sorts. The organisms killed by the hot sun usually improves the fertility underneath the soils, making the deserts a proper place for agriculture, incase one can enhance the supply of water," says Kinyanjui.

The group has however allowed local residents in the neighbourhood to intercrop the forest with food crops such as vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes among others, especially in parts where the trees are still young.

This in return allows for the automatic care of the trees which comes naturally when the farmers weed and take care of their food crops. "We also allow them to use the water for their domestic use as well as their livestock, a factor that makes them feel like they are part of the project, since we no longer incur any expenses either in terms of maintenance or repair of the facility," says Kinyanjui.

According to the solar experts from the Kenital Solar Ltd, a simple solar project with an ability to pump up to 28 litres of water per minute, from up to 250 metres deep can cost about Sh300,000 to install.

This may include connecting four solar panels in a parallel connection system, in order to produce about 48 volts of electric power during maximum sunlight. The power is then connected to the water pump controller and also to the battery bank.

The experts say that the battery bank is used to store electric power converted by the panels from the sun into a direct current system. This can later be used during hours when there is no sufficient sunlight for the solar current, and at night.

The latest panels being imported into the country today, according to the experts, are made of hardened glass which guarantees long life and production of high quality electric power.

Environmentalists on the other hand have recommended the use of solar power, saying that it is non-pollutant, silent and thus environment friendly.

Kinyanjui says that such a project is self-sustaining, and if proper care is taken for it, then it may remain a resource for the community for several years.

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