The sun is all I need for my farm to thrive

Habiba Mohammed uses solar panels to power her irrigation in Wajir, an arid area in North Eastern Kenya, where few have dared to plant crops

Every day, Habiba Mohammed’s farm, with pawpaw, water melons, tomatoes and lemon trees, is irrigated with between 10,000 and 12,000 litres of water.

The farm spans 20 acres. However, only 2.5 acres is under crops. There is nothing unusual about Habiba’s farm except for the fact that its irrigation is powered by solar panels.

Without irrigating her farm, Habiba could as well forget harvesting anything because the farm is located in Wajir – an arid area in North Eastern Kenya.

And just like that, without spending a dime, the widowed mother of seven gets to provide her crops with water, a gold-like resource in Wajir County. Habiba’s is a green oasis. In 2009, when she decided to go into active crop farming, she knew of no one else who had taken such a gamble.

“At the time I was the only farmer I knew,” she says. “I was willing to take the risk because I had a passion for farming.”

She needed no professional to inform her of her first challenge. It was right on her face: the weather. An aerial view of Wajir reveals a land that knows very little rain. Vegetation is scarce and intermittent: almost non-existent.

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Traditional pastoralists

All one sees are dwarf and hardy shrubs. Temperatures can get as high as 36°C – according to the Kenya meteorological department. The heat is searing and the sun is relentless. Wajir is occupied by the Somali community, who are traditionally pastoralists.

The day we arrive we are told men from the community have moved up towards the Ethiopian border, in search of pasture for their animals. But Habiba is comfortable staying in Wajir.

“It is obvious that you can’t plant and grow anything in Wajir. I therefore asked myself, ‘where will I get water from?’” The river? No – there aren’t any rivers in Wajir. Rain? Maybe: but it would be too much gamble as Wajir hasn’t any apparent hydrological cycle. It only rains after years of dry spell “and it is not rain that any serious farmer would depend on,” she says.

Her only option was to dig a borehole – like every water-consuming enterprise in Wajir has. It cost Habiba Sh60,000 to sink a 36ft borehole. Having found a water source, the next challenge was to get the water from the depths onto the farm where it would spur crop life.

“I had to buy a diesel generator to pump the water from the borehole into the farm. I sunk two more boreholes and bought two more generators to get the job done,” she says.

You see, Habiba got into farming to make money. So, she spent money; hundreds of thousands of shillings, to get the job done. She did not know how much water the generators could pump but she knew that each one consumed five litres of diesel; which she bought at Sh110 a litre.

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Every generator siphoned five litres in two days. And since she pumped every day, she spent Sh24,750 every month. Of course fuel cost lingered like a noose on her farming ambitions. To make it worse, the generators needed frequent servicing and would occasionally break down.

“In a year I would make about Sh150,000 – which was quite small considering I was trying my best,” Habiba says.

Wajir is far removed from Nairobi, where farm solutions Habiba was seeking are readily available. But luck struck and she was identified to receive two solar panels from Mercy Corp, a non-governmental organisation under a climate change programme termed BRACED – Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters.

“Each solar panel can pump up to 6,000 litres of water in one day from 36ft. Two can therefore pump 12,000 litres,” says David Onyango, an energy engineer, who worked in the team that installed the solar system on Habiba’s farm.

The solar panel functions in a complete system that includes a submersible solar pump with a probe sensor located just above the water inside the borehole.

Runs throughout

The system also utilises a controller, located outside the mouth of the borehole. There is cabling between the solar panel and the controller. An overhead mortar pumps water via pipes to a storage tank hoisted above the ground then water flows into the farm from the tank through gravitational force.

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The whole system, for Habiba’s farm, cost Sh182,500. According to Onyango, “it cost that much because the materials and expertise were transported from Nairobi. Otherwise it would have cost much less.”

Habiba’s irrigation system runs throughout – as long as there is sunlight to generate the necessary energy. Even on a cloudy day, the panels still work efficiently.

Onyango says, “Solar panels don’t necessarily need intense sunlight. They just need radiation from the sun.”

Further, the system is automated in such a way that when the tank is full the pump stops. In which case, the engineer says, it would be prudent for farmers using such a system to invest in more storage facilities instead of energy saving batteries.

“It is better to store more water than to try and store the energy. This is because batteries have a short lifespan. Plus, the sun will always rise the next day: there is plenty of energy to get from it,” says Onyango.

For the most part, too much sun is the bane of communities in arid areas. But now the problem is a solution – at least for Habiba.

No maintenance

“In areas such as Wajir there is plenty of sun. With such an irrigation system they can tap into the resource and realise productive agriculture that makes the region food sufficient,” Onyango says.

Unlike a diesel/petrol generator, a solar system does not actually need maintenance. All one has to do, Onyango says, is to rid the panel surface of dust, cleaning off the dust for maximum utilisation of solar radiation.

Since installing the system in February 2016, Habiba has realised several folds profits from abundant harvests.

“The last one year I have made Sh400,000 from three harvest seasons of pawpaw. The lemons earn me Sh100,000 in every season – and there are three seasons in a year,” she says.

She has yet to quantify how much she is making from tomatoes and water melons. However, she has a positive view that those too are earning her profits.

With the advent of devolution, Habiba has found a ready market in Wajir – the capital of Wajir County. The demand, she says, outstrips supply. Hotels and households in the upcoming town are always ready to purchase from her. Sometimes she sells to traders overseas via Wajir International airport.

“I really have no regret venturing into the unthinkable,” she says.

Why Kenyans should move away from rain-fed agriculture

On a recent visit to Kilifi, one of the worst places hit by drought, it was apparent that without rain, Kenyan farmers cannot produce food.

“This is one of the worst hungers in Kilifi’s history,” says Mwachitu Kiringi, the Water and Natural Resources executive in Kilifi County. We meet Taabu Kitsao, a farmer, at a food distribution event organised by Action Aid Kenya (AAK). Despite a great willingness to produce her own food from the farm, Taabu’s efforts have been curtailed by the severe drought.

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Taabu, like all beneficiary families that day, received 78kg of maize, 15kg of beans, five litres of cooking oil and a kilogram of iodised salt.

“Nobody wants free food to feed their families. But I have no option. If the rains would just sustain I would proudly farm my own food,” she says.

Therein lies the problem, says Jane Kigen, the team leader of AAK in the Coast region.

“As long as Kenyan farmers are dependent on rain to produce food, drought will force people to depend on relief food,” Jane says. “This is only a short term solution. The government will have to empower Kenyan farmers to irrigate their farms.” Just last month, it began raining in Kilifi. Taabu says she was ecstatic. But she is also worried that drought will continue.

“I am now planting maize and beans. But I am not sure if the rain will sustain much longer. It may stop abruptly and the crop will die. That means I will still need relief food to feed my family,” she says.

According to Mwachitu, climate change has made it difficult for farmers to produce anything.

“The only solution is to adopt an agriculture that does not depend on rain. Farmers will need to start irrigating their farms. Those who live along river banks already have a water source,” Mwachitu says.

This view has been voiced in public by Water CS Eugine Wamalwa and his Agriculture counterpart Willy Bett.

Farms located away from any dependable water source can dig boreholes and install a pumping system. Kenya’s economy is 80 per cent sustained by agriculture. Kenyan farmers therefore have to find a permanent solution to lack of water.

Apart from funding irrigation schemes, the government is yet to provide an irrigation solution to farmers who cannot access river water, and who are often unable to fund the costs of digging a borehole.

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