Futurepump: Where Smart Solar Pumps Meet Big Data to Improve the Lives of Smallholder Farmers

Original article by Katie Cashman can be found on reset.org

Solar-powered water pumps can make a huge difference for millions of farmers around the world. One solar pump business is going the extra mile – supplying farms with eco-friendly solar irrigation systems, and also harvesting vital data to ensure local water sources won’t run dry.

In Africa, 90% of farmers currently rely on rainfall to water their crops. However, changing weather patterns due to climate change and desertification are requiring farmers to adapt. One option for farmers is manual irrigation, but this is usually inefficient and time-intensive. Petrol-powered pumps are another option, but these are polluting, not to mention expensive due to the fuel required. Solar pumps offer farmers a cleaner, and usually also cheaper, alternative.

Enabling affordable irrigation for small farms is likely to have a very positive impact on reducing food insecurity on the continent. Researchers have found that increasing irrigated land area in sub-Saharan Africa could reduce dependency on food imports from 54% (current) to 17-40% – which would mean much more food available for local consumers, and probably at much more affordable prices. The International Water Management Institute (IMWI) found that in Ethiopia alone, 6.8 million hectares are potentially suitable for agriculture with solar-powered irrigation.

Futurepump is one of a number of companies that sells water pumps powered by electricity generated by photovoltaic panels. Their range of low-cost solar-powered water pumps are designed to be robust and portable and able to handle the harsh environment of a small farm of up to 2 acres in size. Based in the UK, Futurepump has sold over 7,000 solar-powered pumps to small-scale farmers across 15 countries in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

Futurepump’s latest model, the SF2, is designed to be set up under the sun and connected with the farm’s irrigation system, such as drip hoses or sprinklers, and run throughout the day so that farmers can focus on other tasks. The pump comes with a 5-year warranty and a package of spare equipment and tools in order to be “farmer-fixable” in case repairs are needed. According to Helen Davies, marketing and communications manager at Futurepump, “We know that agricultural machines will break and require servicing, so instead of hiding from that, we face it head on.” The success of solar-powered irrigation systems depends on the farmers’ involvement in maintenance, as this study from South Africa shows. They’re also currently working together with groups of farmers in Uganda to develop an automated irrigation system that is tailored to the needs of the crop, soil type and growth stage and also responsive to weather forecasts.

The power of data to tackle the water crisis

Although solar pumps use an emissions-free and renewable energy source to move water, that doesn’t mean that nearby bodies of water will necessary always have enough water needed for farming activities. In fact, the danger of “free energy” solar-powered pumps is that farmers will keep irrigation running even when plants don’t need more water. This can deplete groundwater sources and exacerbate the global water crisis. Food and agriculture are the largest consumers of water in the world.

Because of the danger of groundwater depletion, Futurepump has partnered with the International Water Management Institute to collect data about farmers’ water usage, which can then be used to improve water policy. They fitted remote monitoring sensors to 4,000 pumps on farms throughout Africa to collect real time data on energy usage and volumes of water pumped and are now working to overlay this data with other resources such as groundwater maps to inform agricultural policy and help prevent the groundwater sources from running dry. There is very little data on water sourcing for agriculture at the moment, so this project looks to provide crucial data to governments in order to help them set future water policy, as well as to those who want to sell or use solar irrigation pumps.

Futurepump was set up in 2012 as the commercial arm of a group of organisations working on solar irrigation. The group’s managing director, Toby Hammond, discovered a solar-powered pump model developed by the group’s Research and Development team, the PRACTICA Foundation, and wanted to get it out of the lab and to the people who need it the most – smallholder farmers. Futurepump is a social enterprise, which means that the objective is not to maximise financial returns, but rather to create positive social and environmental impact. As Helen Davies explains, “We want to prove that a business can be self sustaining and profitable, while also having sustainability at its core.”