Can solar pumps give Nepal's women farmers a brighter future?

by Alina Paul-Bossuet | Water, Land and Ecosystems, CGIAR

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation. Giving women loans to buy solar panels for irrigation - and access to land - can help them build resilience to climate change

Amrica Devi Yadav, a farmer from the Terai region in Nepal, is not alone in her struggle to grow food.

“I cannot grow many vegetables with just watering cans. But in our village, we do not have many options for irrigation. Electricity is not reliable and diesel pumps are too expensive for us,” she explains.

Yadav lives on a one hectare farm, with her husband and two children in the village of Rayapur, in the Saptari district. During the long dry season, like many others, she finds it hard to cope with her workload, juggling between household chores, childcare and watering her vegetable plot.

Terai is Nepal’s food basket with 71 percent of paddy rice, 64 percent of wheat, and 58 percent of total vegetable production coming from the region. Yet the crop productivity in the many small farms of this region (on average 0.7 hectare) is low, partly due to the difficult access to irrigation.

Despite being blessed by abundant and accessible (only 5 to 15 meters deep) underground water resources, many Terai farmers do not get water during the dry season to grow cash crops like vegetables. Only a third use water pumps for irrigation and a meagre 11 percent of underground water is exploited, as pumping is either unaffordable (diesel costs) or unreliable (electricity).

Could solar pumping be a solution to address food security and poverty among smallholder Terai farmers like Yadav? This is one question the Water Lands and Ecosystems CGIAR research programme explored during the project “Multiple approaches to solving agricultural water problems in mid hills and Terail in Nepal and India”.

Led by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), with the local NGO Sabal Nepal and the social enterprise SUNFARMER, specialized in affordable solar energy technologies, the project aimed to demonstrate the potential of low-cost solar powered irrigation pumps (SPIP) as an alternative for irrigation.

Three pilot solar pump sets were installed in Saptari district, one of them for the women farmers association in Rayapur village, of which Yadav is a member. Saptari was chosen as it ranks second among Terai districts for vegetable production, but is of the one of worst for productivity (15th ) and women’s land ownership is particularly low. This district also has the highest male migration rate among Terai districts and poor access to electricity (only 42 percent of households use electricity).

The impact of the pilot pumps on crop production and livelihoods in Saptari was very positive. With the three solar pumping sets, over nine additional hectares of land were irrigated from August 2015 to July 2016, increasing the cropped area by 28-30 percent. It significantly reduced the use of diesel pumps (from 792 to 206 hours), representing 80,000 Rs ($750) savings for the 30y families that benefited from the solar pumps.

Yadav particularly appreciates the eased workload. “This solar pump has made irrigation physically easier for me,” she says. “We were able to irrigate cash crops like eggplant, potato, chilli, garlic, coriander, onion seed, green leafy vegetables and pointed gourd during the dry season and get a good income.”

Solar pumping is a viable option for farmers to boost their yields and incomes as current models could irrigate 3-5 bighas (approx 2-3.3 hectares) all year around with up to Rs 50,000 savings in diesel costs assuming that the solar pump replaces the use of diesel pump.

Yet, solar pumping technology is still out of reach for most Nepali farmers who do not have the financial means to pay upfront for such equipment. Only 15-20 solar pumps for irrigation were installed in the country at the time of the study compared to over 13,000 in India and 400 in Bangladesh. Scaling up would only happen if appropriate financial models adapted to smallholder farmers were developed.

What is the best model to scale up this technology?

To satisfy the growing demand for solar pumping, the project has tested three financing solutions to scale up the adoption of solar pumping sets.

Through a randomized controlled trial, 3 financial models are being offered to farmers in 93 Village Development Committees in Saptari to test their acceptance among farmers. The benchmark model (grant model) mirrors Nepal’s renewable energy policy by offering a 60 percent grant with the farmer paying 40 percent upfront. The other two models are a grant cum loan model, where in addition to the 60 percent grant, farmers also get a loan, and a pay-as-you-go model, where a 50 percent grant goes to a solar pump entrepreneur who in turn rents out the pump against monthly or seasonal fees.

To improve irrigation access for women, the grant is greater for them (70 percent instead of 60 percent), on the condition that the land on which the solar pump is installed is transferred to the woman.

More than 2,600 farmers attended live demonstrations during a 45-day-long campaign in September and October 2016. About a quarter of the participants were women. This campaign generated 65 demands for SPIP. The grant cum loan model generated 46 percent of the demand followed by the pay-as-you-go model which generated 33 percent of demand.

In a region where women’s land ownership is very low, 75 percent of the applications were from women. It shows that gender-differentiated grant schemes could spark a more equitable land access for women. Further down the line, it will be interesting to evaluate if solar pumping succeeds in boosting women’s empowerment, in a region where irrigation is seen as a male domain.

“This season, I have tried new vegetables like broccoli which is in high demand in the local market. The solar pump system is easy to operate and thanks to it, I will continue grow more cash crops,” says Yadav. With continued government support and the right financial models, the benefits of solar irrigation will hopefully reach other Terai villages.