To businesses and academics: remember, we have a common goal

Last week, the International Forum on Solar Technologies for Small-Scale Agriculture & Water Management was held at the UN FAO HQ, Rome.

The two-day event encompassed everything from technologies and opportunities, to financing and policy within the sector. It promised to be, and in many ways was, an interesting and thought-provoking insight into the ever growing and increasingly important topic of solar irrigation.

However, what seemed to come through in the discussions and panel sessions was that there is a divide between the public and private sectors regarding the positives and negatives of solar irrigation.

One of the most obvious areas where this shone through was groundwater depletion.

Encouragingly, general consensus from all parties is that solar irrigation is “a good thing” – it is important to bear this in mind. Irrigation is “a good thing” to increase land productivity and mitigate against food insecurity. Using solar as the energy source for this is an ideal solution, free energy when it is needed the most.

On the flip side there are environmental implications of increased water extraction which must be considered. Yes, groundwater extraction should be monitored to ensure that over abstraction does not occur.

But it’s not as black and white as some make it sound. Statements such as “I’m on the side of the groundwater” in response to questions from solar irrigation businesses don’t seem helpful to me. It sounds like someone trying to pick a fight with the private sector, commercial businesses, who are made out to only want to sell more and more water pumps for irrigation without a thought to the consequences.

It’s not the case that there are sides to choose. But rather a lack of understanding and collaboration between academics and businesses.

Some fantastic groundwater mapping studies and solar irrigation toolkits for selecting appropriate irrigation approaches were showcased. But how often do businesses see these studies and toolkits outside the walls of a conference centre?

The time and effort gone into these tools certainly should not be wasted. So, it got me thinking, how can we encourage businesses to use these tools? They should not be confined to academic reports and complex data sets.

And without wanting to make the private sector sound stupid, I think it comes down to simplicity. The fact is, in the midst of having to make commercially viable business choices there often isn’t the resource available to carefully consider and use the research available. Often, we aren’t even aware that the research is there.

It certainly should not be a “them and us” situation.

It certainly should not be a “them and us” situation. There is a required role for making business advisory tools backed by academic research. These need to come with understanding from both the public and private sectors. The private sector should not see these tools as business constraints but rather tools to enable sustainable commercialisation. And the public sector needs to remember that a business must work to become commercially viable to make and sustain positive change.

So, I guess it comes down to increasing communication and understanding between the public and private sectors to drive sustainability for social businesses and the environment. More forums and conferences should focus on this engagement rather than accidentally segregated academic conferences and business showcases which may be driving a “them and us” approach.

Ultimately, especially within the solar irrigation sector, we have a common goal. The phasing out of unsustainable and inefficient fossil fuel pumps and the empowerment of rural smallholders, all whilst protecting the natural environment. Because done right, solar irrigation is “a good thing”.

Solar pumps are a good thing
Solar powered irrigation is a nexus opportunity for smallholder farmers…if technologies work and are available

Ideas from IWMI

Author: Helen Davies