Gerard Munyeshuri Gatete inspects a solar powered water pump on an 8-hectare farm in Barija Sector in Nyagatare District, Eastern Province. It pumps water 60 metres underground to irrigate his crops during drought.
Gatete said that before getting the technology one year ago, he and family members who co-own the farm would harvest about one tonne of beans per hectare, but now they harvest 2.5 tonnes.
For maize, he said, the harvest was two tonnes but now it's about four tonnes per hectare. During the dry season, they were at the mercy of the mother nature.
The 30-year old told The New Times on Thursday that they got the Rwf22 million system thanks to support from Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and subsidies from Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB).
The family paid only 25% of the cost of the technology (about Rwf5 million). It pumps about 3.5 cubic metres of water per hour.
"We used to run farming activities in two seasons only because we could not irrigate. We could not grow vegetables and watermelons because they need a lot of water," he said, adding that they now grow the crops throughout the year.
Indeed, water for irrigation is becoming a vital input for agriculture productivity due to drought, says Otto Vianney Muhinda, FAO Assistant Representative in Rwanda.
Muhinda concurs with Eugene Rurangwa, the Land and Water Officer for Regional Office for FAO, that water is the main input in agriculture, since without it, no production can be possible.
But, the agriculture experts told The New Times that farmers, especially smallholders, do not have access to water, or technologies to make use of water when it is available in their localities, which necessitate sinnovative ways to enable them access water.
Speaking on Wednesday during a training workshop on solar powered irrigation in Eastern Africa held in Rwanda last week, Rurangwa said the high cost and environmental impact such as gas emissions associated with diesel-fueled pumping systems led FAO to initiate a new technology - a solar-powered irrigation system.
The system, he said, is affordable and environmental-friendly as it makes use of the sun to utilise water, especially underground water for communities living in areas with no water bodies such as rivers, and lakes.
Experts say that solar-powered irrigation could be a solution to East Africa's drought prone agriculture.
According to the World Bank, many communities around the world have limited access to water. To reach deep groundwater reserves, diesel generated electricity is used in rural villages to power electric water pumps despite its high maintenance and diesel fuel requirements, the Bank says.
Rurangwa said that they have since started testing the technology in Gambia, Mali, Niger, Kenya, Uganda, and in Rwanda.
"We will see how it is working, how it can be improved and make it profitable for our communities. Profitable means how we can improve the efficiency by reducing the installation cost," he said.
The World Bank says that the price for solar panel reduced by 80% over the last seven years, making it affordable.
The Minister of State in charge of Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Fulgence Nsengiyumva, said that irrigation was among the tools that help improve farm yield and reduces vulnerability to changing rainfall patterns.
He said as part of efforts to address drought, which threatens Rwanda's agriculture and food security, the government initiated a sustainable small scale irrigation whereby it subsidises the cost of irrigation equipment by 50%.
Cost of system
Under the initiative, he said, the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources allocate Rwf2.5 billion annually for subsidies on small scale irrigation technologies.
"In addition, one of the factors that inhibit small scale-irrigation technologies is the high cost of fuel. In this regard, the introduction of solar-powered irrigation in our country presents an opportunity to abandon the high operating cost of fuel-powered generators," he said underscoring the need for partnership between government and private sector to scale up irrigation technologies that use solar energy.
Hanna Dohrenbusch, Head of Corporate Affairs at SunCulture, a company that provides solar powered irrigation solutions, said that they are more affordable than fuel-pumped irrigation systems as, by going solar, the farmer will not have to pay recurrent costs.
The company has solar-powered irrigation system called rainmaker, which includes 120 watt portable solar panel, portable battery, controller, and the pump.
Talking about the cost, Dohrenbusch said, for system with capacity to irrigate 1.5 acres (equivalent to more than half a hectare), a farmer pays about $418 (or about Rwf350,000).
Usually, she said, a farmer pays $200 (about Rwf170,000) per month for fuel to run a diesel-powered engine to irrigate one acre.
"It is ideal for smallholder farmers. The panel lasts for 25 years, while the battery has a life-span of three years," she said.
The system has been working in Kenya since October 2017, she said, noting that they are also looking to bring it to Rwanda.
To ensure more efficiency in irrigation, she said that farmers should prefer using drip irrigation as it uses about 80% less water as water directly goes onto the roots of crops, than flood irrigation which includes of spreading water onto plants or soil.
Agriculture sector accounts for more than half of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, and over 70 per cent in East African Community (EAC), according to FAO.
The sector contributes about 32 per cent to EAC's combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $146 billion as per the Community's statistics for 2016.
But less than 10% of agriculture in the region is irrigated, making farms highly prone to drought as they are largely rain-fed.