Africa: USAID Launches 'Powering Agriculture' Challenge

Washington — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has launched a global initiative to help farmers boost their production by making available affordable electricity for such agricultural uses as irrigation and cold storage.

"New ways to provide clean and off-grid energy to farmers will help increase yields, raise incomes and decrease post-harvest loss," said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The multiyear initiative, called Powering Agriculture, was introduced at a recent USAID conference in Washington called Frontiers in Development. More than 700 public and private sector representatives from around the world attended.

The initiative focuses on promoting affordable, clean energy solutions for farmers and agribusinesses throughout the developing world. It also supports market-driven approaches that link modern energy service providers with farmers, food processors, suppliers and traders. These approaches aim to further integrate clean energy technologies in the agricultural sector to increase production and reduce post-harvest loss.

"Increasing the agricultural sector's access to clean energy technologies will enable farmers to mechanize their operations, add value to commodities through processing and store fresh produce in refrigerated containers to extend its shelf-life. These advancements will lead to more food in the market, increase incomes for farmers and traders, and decrease dependency of the agriculture sector on fossil fuels," according to a website on the initiative.

"When communities are served by reliable energy providers, new employment opportunities emerge, local businesses become more competitive, and the quality of health clinics and schools improve," the website states.

Clean energy technologies also mean that children living on farms will have the time and money to attend school. One example of a clean energy use is a solar-powered water pump that increase yields while decreasing the number of hours a farmer spends carrying water to fields.

"Expanding access to clean energy in low-income countries is a key component of global development efforts and the pursuit of a carbon-free economy," the website adds.

But the website also says significant barriers exist to the integration of clean energy technology in agriculture development. Farmers are not always aware of the variety of new technologies that may be appropriate for them. Clean energy technologies are relatively new, therefore farmers have limited access to distributors for installation, parts and service. Farmers also often do not have the means to cover high capital costs associated with clean energy upgrades. And financing is largely unavailable, the initiative's website says.

In Africa, women account for about 80 percent of the labor in agriculture. "Imagine what would happen if they had access to technology that could be powered because they have access to energy. They save significant amount of time in pounding food, in grinding, in preparing food for market and also can preserve whatever is left over a the end of the day," said Sierra Leonean Kandeh Yumkella, director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. He said that in West Africa, where post-harvest losses are as much as 60 percent of harvest, access to energy can reduce those loses and make more food available to consumers.

He added that 2012 has been declared by the U.N. General Assembly as the year of sustainable energy for all in recognition that energy access is crucial for fighting poverty and for achieving the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000. The goals commit to reducing poverty and hunger, improving health and education and ensuring environmental sustainability. "This conference creates the nexus of food security and energy security. It is about innovation and deploying technology that will enhance the productivity, particularly for women," Yumkella said.

Powering Agriculture is the third "Grand Challenge" to global problem-solvers to unite around a common goal. The first challenge was called Saving Lives at Birth to end preventable child death. "Thanks to new vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhea, effective bed nets and a host of other health technologies, we now have the tools necessary to bring this ambitious goal to reality," Shah said. The second challenge was called All Children Reading.

Powering Agriculture partners include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Duke Energy and the African Development Bank

"At a time when talk of austerity is dominating economic discussions in wealthy countries, both Frontiers in Development and the Call to Action show that this is not the time to lower our sights," Shah said. "Uniting the world around new approaches, whether it's resilience, private investment in agriculture, mobile money or child survival, is going to be a hallmark of how [USAID] does business moving forward," Shah said.

More information about Powering Agriculture is available on a website for the initiative. More information on Frontiers in Development is available on the USAID website.

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