Tapping the sun to increase rural incomes in Ghana

May 21, 2021

Farmer Hawa Adams is able to harvest three times per year due to a constant supply of water from solar-powered pumps. Photo: Bossman Owusu/UNDP Ghana

“I know the sun has power, but I never imagined it could change my life for good,” says Hawa Adams, a vegetable farmer. Hawa lives with her husband and eight children in Tamalgu, a farming community in northern Ghana.

This region is much drier than the south, receiving an average annual rainfall of 750mm to 1,050mm. Agriculture is traditionally rain-fed and serves as the primary livelihood of more than 80 percent of the population.

In most parts of Ghana, climate change has affected farmers’ ability to predict the rains, which negatively affects planting and harvesting. Without additional water sources for irrigation, farming usually lasts only one season. This trend, together with the unfavourable climatic conditions, adversely impacts productivity, reduces farmers’ incomes and plunges many into poverty.

“Tilling in my sweat did little to improve my livelihood, but I had no option”, says Hawa. “Providing three square meals for my family was a luxury. Although my husband supported me, I still struggled to support the education of my children in school."

Through a solar-powered irrigation project supported by the Energy Commission of Ghana and UNDP, smallholder farmers in the four communities of Tamalgu, Nakpanduri, Datoyili and Fooshegu can now irrigate their farm fields regularly.

Launched in October 2014, the programme has installed a solar-powered irrigation pump in each of the four communities. Altogether, the pumps are capable of watering up to 15 hectares of land, while the solar panels have a total capacity of 22.5 kilowatts and are capable of delivering up to 1 million litres of water each day.

The initiative was implemented by NewEnergy, a local NGO that seeks to make sustainable energy accessible and affordable to smallholder farmers.

“Our aim is to facilitate a year-round farming at the selected communities by making water available,” says Mahama Amadu, Chairman of NewEnergy.

Hawa is one of 78 farmers who have benefitted from the intervention so far. “Before the project, I spent an average of US $10 [a fifth of the monthly minimum wage in Ghana] on fuel each month to power a rented pump to irrigate my field. At a point, I could not sustain it due to the high running cost,” she says.

Irrigating fields through fuel-powered pumps also required connecting several pieces of rented water hoses. Assembling and disassembling the hoses daily is tedious, and over time the hoses suffer wear and tear, adding to maintenance costs. With the installation of the solar powered pumps, such costs have been minimized.

Now, each farmer contributes an average of $2.5 monthly toward a cooperative fund to ensure proper maintenance of the equipment and maintain capital for future investments.

“The constant supply of water from the solar-powered pumps offers me the prospect to harvest at least three times each year, instead of one,” says Hawa. “This means increased income, food and improved nutrition for my household. With this, I can support my children’s education.”

With assistance from NewEnergy, the farmers have also established good relationships with reputable purchasers who help them to sell the farm produce.

Besides the traditional flood irrigation techniques, the project also introduced, on a pilot basis, a drip irrigation demonstration kit in each of the four communities. This technology utilizes water more efficiently and makes it possible for more farmers to access the same solar PV system and expand the irrigation area.

The Government of Ghana endorses the initiative. “I am highly impressed with the technology in use here, as well as the enthusiasm and commitment of the farmers,” says Dr Alhassan Yakubu, Deputy Minister of Agriculture.

Ghana was one of the first countries to embark on the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, launching a SE4ALL Action Plan in June 2012. The Plan identifies key barriers and proposes critical actions and commitments to address needs in the energy sector. It is expected that the solar-powered irrigation pumps will be sustained, replicated and scaled up to provide more self-employment opportunities for youth who would otherwise be forced to move from rural to urban areas in search of work.