Actors in the sustainability sector are faced with a unique challenge, seeking not only to disrupt existing practices and products but the ideological foundation they’re built upon. This foundation is one of quick-fix, short-term solutions which are detrimental in the long-term; one which is built on the systematic exploitation of customers and the environment. Not only are these practices grossly unethical, they are inherently unsustainable, deferring their harmful consequences for future generations to deal with. As global temperature rise breaches 1°C, we see that this future is fast-becoming the present and business as usual is not an option.
Irrigation and Smallholder Farming
Irrigation has only been adopted on a significant scale by large commercial farms, with smallholder, semi-commercial or subsistence farmers still overwhelmingly relying on rain-fed agriculture. So, in 2016, when Sub-Saharan Africa was hit by intense droughts, bought upon by one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded, it was the smallholder farmers’ livelihoods that were disproportionately devastated.
Regrettably, these types of extreme weather events are likely to become the new normal in our permanently changed climate and, without access to effective irrigation, the smallholder farming sector is facing an existential threat. This is further reflected in the low numbers of young people adopting farming, who can no longer rely on the family farming business as a primary source of income.
The consequences of diminishing smallholder agriculture would be felt worldwide. These farmers feed 70% of the world’s 824 million food insecure people—a number set to increase as the population rises. Supporting the smallholder farming industry is literally vital then, for meeting global food demands.
Finding a solution
Ambitious government-led irrigation schemes have unfortunately been unsuccessful. And manual irrigation methods are labour and time inefficient, creating more problems than they solve. By far the most harmful products though, are fossil-fuel powered pumps. In addition to producing further carbon emissions, they lock farmers into recurring maintenance and fuel payments. Farmers are then unable to make profits from their produce.
The local environment also suffers. The large flow rates supplied by petrol and diesel pumps are unnecessary, wasting volumes of valuable water and over-irrigating the land, leading to soil degradation. This is not a solution. It allows smallholder businesses to survive, but only just and only for now. This does nothing to address the myriad of challenges faced by these farmers and ultimately falls into the same unethical and unsustainable trappings that got us to this point in the first place.
The rise of solar irrigation
But beneath this gloomy picture lies a hopeful narrative. Long since met with scepticism, solar technology has defied expectations. As PV panels rapidly increase in efficiency and decrease in price, they are birthing a flourishing market of clean energy solutions.
Futurepump seized on this opportunity to develop a transformative product which provides sustainable, solar powered irrigation for smallholder farmers. These solar pumps combine the efficiency of a reciprocating piston system with free energy from the sun to deliver a truly sustainable alternative. Because there are no costs in running the pump, farmers can benefit from year-around production and can sell on their surplus without any strings attached.
There is another subtle but more powerful advantage to our product. It is our continued commitment to the customer after a sale is made, providing a spare-parts and maintenance warranty at no extra cost. We do this because we recognise that our mission to provide sustainable irrigation fails when our product fails. Since the technology will be subjected to harsh conditions on the farm, no amount of clever engineering will prevent this happening from time to time. So, rather than disingenuously portray our pumps as invincible, we have chosen to address this head on and make customer support as routine as our other operations. This ensures that farmers can truly maximise the potential of their investment.
Encompassing this dimension into our business model is no easy task. We have conducted extensive research into customer habits and our trained technicians are always on their feet, carrying out servicing operations. Ultimately though, this approach is more rewarding. With regular first-hand feedback from our customers, we are able to improve our pump and our services most effectively. And through developing a positive relationship with our customers, we never lose sight of our wider vision of a sustainable, thriving, smallholder agricultural industry.
The challenges ahead
It is still early days for the sustainable technology industry and there are some unresolved challenges. Our pump’s recommended retail price is $650 which, in addition to manufacturing costs, margins and operations, includes the cost of keeping our business running ethically. This involves keeping a close eye on our environmental impact, forging invaluable ties within the communities we serve and a commitment to ensuring our pumps stay functional and productive throughout their life-span. Whilst this price tag is modest compared to other products on the market, this does present a barrier for bottom of pyramid customers; which is why we have made them available on a finance plan, requiring an initial down payment and monthly repayments thereafter.
Futurepump, along with many other businesses operating within the sustainability sector, are working tirelessly to show the world the transformative potential of renewable technology; that this is a worthy investment for farmers with a high return. We hope that in doing so we can welcome more and more finance institutions into the fold, to provide more options for customers who want to adopt sustainable, value-adding technology.
We are encouraged by the many success stories that have come out of our short time in the market. Joshua Okundi in Homa Bay, was one of our first customers. He bought his solar pump in May 2015 after he calculated he was making losses on his produce using a petrol pump. Now, not only does he generate more income using the solar pump, he has become a valuable member of the extended Futurepump family, organising demonstrations and teaching others how to improve agricultural production.
Magdalene Ouma is situated 300m from Lake Victoria on Rusinga Island. Transporting water to her home was a financial drain as she had to hire donkeys and petrol pumps. She now supplies a storage tank using our solar pump, which provides running water through taps in her home; her agricultural output has had a boost and she is now profiting from growing bananas alongside her original vegetable plots; crucially, her pump enabled her to continue to grow grass for feeding her cows during the drought.
Joshua and Magdalene are just two of hundreds of farmers who have benefited from solar irrigation across Kenya and the wider world. In a recent impact assessment conducted by Acumen, 86% of surveyed Futurepump customers reported that they’d eliminated spending on water pumping and 75% reported an improved quality of life.
The Future of Business
Driving a business from the heart is not only ethical, it is powerful. In doing differently from our predecessors—setting long-term environmental and social impacts as targets rather than short-term profit margins—we are sincerely committed to rejuvenating the world’s agricultural sector at the grassroots. We do not want to display a cheerful veneer that hides the challenges that come with this, rather, we openly and proudly embrace them. Our optimism is instead driven by our vision for the future. One in which smallholder farmers are resilient in the face of the changing climate, are producing all year round and providing food for their communities. One in which a sustainable business is simply called a business.