Nigeria: Role of Off-Grid Renewable Energy in Farmers' Productivity

23 February 2021
opinion

Agriculture is a primary economic activity amongst less industrialised countries, on the average, accounting for 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in those countries.

The significant economic contribution of the agricultural sector has not yet resulted in a concomitant accumulation of widespread benefits for most rural inhabitants.

Nigeria alone has a land area of 98.3 million hectares, with 74 million hectares good for farming. Yet, half of its arable land has not been exploited to produce crops and livestock to stem the threat of hunger and poverty through an efficient production system.

It is obvious that from a growth point of view, opportunities exist in Nigeria's agriculture sector, especially with small-scale farmers no doubt, having a lot to benefit from a situation where there is a favourable operating environment.

The agricultural sector in Nigeria has remained mostly underdeveloped for many decades, and this has resulted in a lot of rural dwellers leaving for the urban areas in search of white-collar jobs.

Despite new interventions to resuscitate the sector, there is a need to intensify sustainable efforts especially in energy use across the value chain of the agricultural process.

Access to energy is fundamental to the development of any economy in driving industrial or technological development, and supporting the functioning of basic services. Over the years, Nigeria has grappled with ensuring the adequate provision of this basic amenity (electricity) to various areas of the country.

World Bank 2018 data estimates the energy access rate in Nigeria at 56.5 per cent. This situation constitutes one of two of the major constraints - the other being access to finance - faced by Smallholder farmers, who contribute disproportionately to boosting job creation and GDP of the nation; and calls for urgent intervention.

The productivity of smallholder agriculture and its contribution to the economy, food security and poverty reduction depend on the services provided by well-functioning ecosystems, including sustainable access to energy and freshwater delivery among others.

Fortunately, a new slate of agricultural appliances suitable for smallholder farmers are now emerging in Africa powered by off-grid renewable energy.

Thanks to the ongoing innovation in the off-grid sector, a host of productive use appliances that are powered by off-grid renewable energy have emerged.

Electrical appliances, such as irrigation systems and refrigeration, which could increase food production and reduce post-harvest losses can now be powered by off-grid renewable energy sources and easily be accessible by small-scale farmers and agribusiness owners with adequate financing options.

Solar power can be used in controlled drying of agricultural products, domestic cooking, and pumping water for irrigation and lighting of farms and rural areas where there is limited access to on-grid energy supply for agricultural production.

Huge volumes of agricultural wastes in the form of livestock manure, corn cobs, cassava peelings, rice husks, groundnut shells, sawdust, bagasse, human excreta and the resultant gas can be converted into potential sources of biomass and biomass energy that can be plowed back into agricultural production and processing activities.

Mini-grids usage in agriculture provides numerous opportunities for rural communities to boost local economies. Some agricultural activities that have effectively benefitted from mini-grids over the years in developing countries include milling, oil pressing, egg incubation and ice making for fish.

However, a key barrier impeding the penetration of these renewable energy technology solutions in Nigeria's agricultural sector is the limited awareness among the small-scale farmers that suffer both from the lack of electricity services as well as renewable energy options available to power and optimise their farms. .

Many of the small-scale farmers in the country are unaware of the available cost-effective clean energy options that have the potential to greatly improve their productivity and profitability and enhance food security.

This calls for urgent intervention especially in the face of recent global recession, economic downturns and growing food scarcity, because increasing agricultural production and yields can be the panacea for ending poverty.

To this end, Clean Technology Hub Nigeria in continuation of her advocacy for access to clean, as well as reliable and sustainable energy solutions, recently conducted a one-day workshop in three states namely Ondo, Delta and Ebonyi during the last quarter of 2020 to educate farmers on the available alternative clean energy solutions for their businesses.

The sensitisation programme titled: "Pathway to Increased Income, Profit and Yield using Renewable Energy" for smallholder farmers was aimed at helping the smallholder farmers navigate the particular issues faced in their businesses, particularly around the effects of poor access to energy, and environmental degradation.

The training further delved into how these small farmer holding communities can effectively enhance their business productivity and profits, as well expand on their operations with the aid of these clean energy technologies.

The event which was carried out in three states had about 180 attendees with 70 per cent of them being smallholder farmers. Furthermore, a majority of the respondents (65 per cen) also admitted to the challenge of poor electricity supply which hinders the up-scaling of their businesses.

The training provided farmers with insights, information and knowledge on existing and emerging clean energy solutions that could enhance their farming businesses.

Adopting the use of renewable energy in agriculture by smallholder farmers not only has the ability to solve various challenges but will also boost the renewable market industry where the growth of the agriculture industry will be supported by that of the renewable energy industry and vice versa.

Renewable energy can provide a long-term source of revenue for agriculturists, as excess energy generated can be sold to neighboring households and communities under a commercial arrangement.

This contributes significantly to the continuous development in energy security within the agriculture sector. These also further results in the independent supply of energy-reduced environmental pollution and the application of diverse energy sources to increase agricultural yields.

The pre and post training survey however showed that the major challenges hindering the smallholder farmers in adopting these clean energy solutions in their business operations were the lack of finance to acquire the clean energy solutions for their business.

This is based on the upfront costs associated with acquiring these clean technologies which is quite high. As small scale farmers are already over leveraged in trying to turn their farms into profitable enterprises, it is quite difficult to be able to afford these technologies on their own or access lines of credit facilities to acquire the same.

Renewable energy sources could serve to reduce the energy deficit among small-scale agricultural production in Nigeria, but certain constraints already identified above must be resolved first.

Identifying the energy needs of rural communities, their capacity to generate and use different forms of existing alternative energy sources, and the likely constraints they face would be the first step in harnessing renewable energy sources in smallholder farmers' productivity in Nigeria.

Given the enormous natural resources she is endowed with, the Nigerian economy has what it takes to be food-secured. It however requires a re-orientation of the agricultural sector by properly repositioning the smallholder farmers who constitute the majority of the food producers in Nigeria by ensuring that they are abreast of technological advancements that can improve their operations, their yields and their revenues.

There is ongoing work by the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), the USAID, Nigerian Power Sector Programme (NPSP), the Nigerian Off-Grid Market Program (NoMAP) amongst others, that addresses some of the existing gaps in the renewable energy/Agriculture nexus.

Some of these work can be expanded upon through private sector involvement in conjunction with increased government support in order to advance access to clean energy solutions.

Okoh is the Senior Associate Cross-cutting Practice at Clean Technology Hub and Malo is the co-founder and CEO of Clean Technology Hub

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