Solar project tackles Benin's arid land

Posted: 26 March 2008

Western Africa's dry season wreaks havoc on the lives of millions of people year after year. But now some villages in Benin are going to harness solar power to solve their water problems. Robert Freling reports.

The 104,000 people living in Benin's Kalalé District are particularly hard hit by seasonal drought: 95 per cent of them rely on subsistence farming as their primary means of survival. And for most, farming is limited to the rainy season due the lack of accessible water for irrigation during the dry season. Beyond providing a cleaner and quieter local environment in comparison to diesel pumps, solar pumping can provide a carbon-free and sustainable energy source.

Benin village solar array
Benin village solar array
Residents of Kalalé village learning about and working on their solar array.
During the dry season people suffer from poor diets, little income and the necessity of buying expensive food from the tropical areas of the country. For half the year, a lack of farm work causes community dislocation as many families migrate to overcrowded urban areas in search of employment.

Kalalé District's dry season typically lasts six months a year. During this time, crops are only grown in the very limited areas near rivers or lakes. In these more fortunate villages, water is commonly moved through the laborious and time-consuming method of filling containers by hand and slowly watering individual plants. This labour-intensive process severely limits the amount of land that can be cultivated during the dry season.

Local generators

There have been limited attempts to irrigate Kalalé's farmland with pumps powered by gas or diesel engines but these attempts have been short-lived due to maintenance difficulties and the high cost of fuel in the region. In addition, the national electric grid has not reached Kalalé District. Currently the only electrical generation is supplied by small, local generators sparsely disbursed throughout the region.

Over 80 per cent of Kalalé's villages do not have a source of surface water and virtually nothing is grown during the dry season. During this time, families live on a combination of stored grains and expensive food brought up from the tropical southern part of the country. Prices for basic vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions and peppers, almost double during the dry season. The lack of availability and high prices combine to severely limit diets during the dry season and malnutrition is prevalent.

In addition to a lack of water for crop production, many villages in Kalalé also suffer from a lack of clean water for drinking and domestic use. Those without clean water suffer from various water-borne illnesses while those with wells spend a great deal of time fetching water from a limited number of hand-pumps that are often not working.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is working to install low-cost micro-irrigation and solar water pumps in two villages in the District. This will create a reliable and economical means of irrigation and enable families in these villages to grow crops during the six month dry season for significant improvements in family income and nutrition.

Clean water

At least 20 families (100-200 people) will directly benefit from the solar-irrigation project and approximately 4,500 people living in two communities will benefit from the added supply of clean water during the rainy season. The first phase of the project, which was funded in part by the $100,000 seed money that SELF won in the World Bank's Development Marketplace Competition, began in August 2007.

Once completed, the solar drip-irrigation technology that is being installed will provide participating families will more than double their annual income.

Solar-powered irrigation
Solar-powered irrigation
Flourishing crops are the result of the new drip-irrigation system.
They will be able to increase considerably their consumption of fresh vegetables during the dry season thus reducing malnutrition.

Project villages will double or even triple the harvest of fresh vegetables during the dry season and will gain an average of 6,000-8,000 gallons per day or more of clean water during the rainy season.

A plan will be developed to replicate the project in the remaining 42 villages of Kalalé District.

Combined use

Because the wells and solar pumps will only be used for irrigation during the dry season, the community will benefit greatly during the rest of the year from the solar-pumped well water. The laborious and time-consuming task of collecting water in small containers from faraway wells will be effectively eliminated.

While both solar pumping and micro-drip irrigation schemes have had widespread use, they have seldom been used in combination and results have not been well-documented. SELF plans to establish a set of "best practices" for combining these technologies and a "how-to" format and dissemination plan so that this technology can be used to help the millions of people in Africa and elsewhere that are limited in the amount of food that they can grow by the absence of water.

As 1.8 billion people in the world without electricity look for energy solutions to improve their lives, projects such as this show that the targeted use of solar energy can raise living standards and still preserve fragile environments already under stress from overuse and climate change.

Robert Freling is executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). His report first appeared in Renewable Energy World