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In the field of low-cost solar-powered agro equipment, solar micro-irrigation pumps are the last kid on a block which is not too dynamic to begin with. However, these pumps do seem to bear a lot of promise, and we produced a deep dive on the results of the most successful manufacturer so far.

Solar micro-irrigation pumps cost a few hundred dollars and can help with the basic irrigation needs of smaller farmers, who would otherwise irrigate manually, irrigate little (given the price of fuel) or not irrigate at all. The product is about the equivalent of a small motor-pump, whose Chinese models have flooded every developing market. Quite a few players are working on prototypes, and it is likely we will see a flurry of manufacturers proposing one of those in the coming years – including from China. But at this stage, the questions we wanted to get an insight on were: what kind of farmers buy this; why; are they happy with it; and to what extend does it improve their lives?

The key findings of this research are summarized in a two-pager (click on the image), drawn from a larger report LeFil contributed to (see publications section below). For us at LeFil, two findings stand out:

  • The ‘solar appeal’. To the question ‘why did buy’, many respondents simply answered: because it is solar. They did not say ‘it saves costs’, or ‘it is better than diesel’…but rather ‘it is solar’. For people who cannot press on a power switch, who need to fetch their wood and pay expensive for kerosene, free and unconditional access to energy is something magic. Many users actually had a solar panel at home already. For the others, we heard that the demonstrations of the pump make people’s eyes shine. Imagine a pump that starts just because it stands under the sunlight…
  • The ‘expectation vs. the truth’. Most respondents bought because of the anticipated savings or avoided expenses. Like always, low-income consumers go for what they should be able to bank on. However, the interesting part is that the economic benefits of pumps are mostly about additional income – because crops yielded more, farmers could cultivate a bit later or earlier in the season (and so fetch a price differential on the market), more varied cash crops could be cultivated, etc. A much larger proportion of users and a much larger share of the economic benefits actually came from additional income, and not cost savings.