IWMI Success Stories

How solar-based innovations are helping farmers in Africa become water and food secure

Agricultural productivity has increased and farmers are more water resilient thanks to innovative solar-based irrigation solutions.

As climate change threatens water and food security in many parts of Africa, governments are promoting small-scale, farmer-led irrigation as a crucial climate adaptation measure. At the same time, rising incomes and changing dietary patterns among middle-income consumers are making the production of high-value irrigated crops an attractive market opportunity for smallholder farmers. But a lack of an energy source to pump water as well as various social and economic constraints are preventing many smallholders from cashing in on this opportunity.

In Ghana, for example, most smallholders do not have access to a consistent supply of electricity. In many off-grid areas, petrol and diesel pumps are commonly used for irrigation. These pumps are expensive to run and contribute to carbon emissions. With the country’s abundance of sunshine and water resources, solar pumps offer smallholders an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative.

Around 2.3 million hectares

in Ghana alone could be suitable for solar pumping.

(Source: IWMI)

Solar-based irrigation setup in Gorogo, Upper East Region, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Getting the right solar technologies to the right people is often complicated by weak supply chains, high costs and a poor understanding of local market needs. IWMI, supported by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (Africa RISING) projects, has identified a bundle of innovative solutions with significant agricultural potential.

Best-fit innovation bundles

A key project objective is engaging private sector actors, who play a central role in the supply of solar irrigation technologies and services such as pumps, information, financing and after-sales support. The aim is to identify bundles of innovations that can be adapted to fit the local context and to scale these up to reach a large number of farmers. In 2020, the first scaling partnerships were established in Ghana and Ethiopia to accelerate progress towards this objective.

In Ghana, IWMI partners with Pumptech, a solar pump distributor that combines pumps with pay-as-you-own financing. This flexible financing model helps to address the challenge of high initial investment costs by allowing farmers to use the equipment while making small, regular payments. Once the total cost of the equipment is paid off, the pump is permanently unlocked and ownership is transferred to the farmer. The pump can also be temporarily locked remotely if a farmer misses a payment, thereby de-risking private companies’ investment in solar systems.

When I was using a petrol pump, I ran at a loss because of the high operating costs. With a solar pump my costs are low. I am saving the profit from the small pump to buy a bigger solar pump, and to cover family responsibilities like school fees. I am now able to irrigate my farm faster. Previously it took me three hours, but with the pump, it takes me 30 minutes.

Amadu Issaka, vegetable farmer in Gentiiga, Upper East Region, Ghana

Internships are one of five modalities in the IWMI-led internship and innovation grant pathway for capacity development (click for larger view)
Internships are one of five modalities in the IWMI-led internship and innovation grant pathway for capacity development

Across Ghana’s drought-prone northern regions, IWMI and Pumptech organized a series of demand-supply linkage workshops. In total, the workshops brought together 2,601 value chain actors to discuss ways to establish strong distribution networks for Pumptech, using workshop participants as sales and service agents. Seventeen such networks have since been set up. During the workshops, participants also identified 862 potential customers for Pumptech’s PS2 pumps. These are compact and relatively affordable off-grid pumps that are specifically aimed at smallholders.

To handle the increased demand generated by the workshops, Pumptech opened a new branch office in the Upper East Region in mid-2021 with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. In addition, Pumptech’s pay-as-you-own financing model attracted USD 102,750 in funding from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to facilitate the further development of Ghana’s solar-powered irrigation sector.

As Pumptech’s business expanded, it became clear the company needed to improve its digital data management and marketing systems. IWMI helped to recruit two interns, as part of an evidence-based approach to building capacity and accelerating innovation scaling in agricultural value chains. Pumptech has since hired both interns as staff and adopted IWMI’s internship model to fill other knowledge and skills gaps in the organization. Overall, IWMI support helped Pumptech to increase pump sales by more than 80% in 2021 compared to 2020.

Farmers attend a Pumptech demonstration during a fieldtrip to Gentiiga in Bawku, Ghana. Photo: Thai Thi Minh / IWMI

Demand-supply linkage workshops and multi-stakeholder dialogues help to bring actors together and accelerate progress. Photo: Rahel Mesganaw / IWMI
Demand-supply linkage workshops and multi-stakeholder dialogues help to bring actors together and accelerate progress. Photo: Rahel Mesganaw / IWMI

Scaling up for greater impact

IWMI also established a scaling partnership in Ethiopia with Rensys, another solar pump distributor. In the past two years, Rensys has expanded to four new regions. As a result of demand-supply linkage workshops, field demonstrations and other activities, nearly 300 farmers have indicated their interest in buying a pump and almost 100 farmers have acquired the technology, 18 of these under a pay-as-you-own credit arrangement.

Ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogues, which include the Ethiopian government’s Agricultural Water Management Task Force and the World Bank’s 2030 Water Research Group, are amplifying IWMI’s scaling efforts by engaging a broader set of actors up to the national level.

The lessons learned in Ghana and Ethiopia are now being applied in Mali, where IWMI has carried out market research on the country’s solar-based irrigation potential and is working with several private sector scaling partners. The first multi-stakeholder dialogue was held here in May 2021, and the first demand-supply linkage workshop took place in June 2022. Almost 200 people attended the workshop, including representatives from four private sector pump suppliers and 134 farmers.

“Mali’s solar market is extremely dynamic,” says Dr. Thai Thi Minh, Senior Researcher — Innovation Scaling at IWMI. She led the market research in the Koutiala, Lag Wegna and Sikasso regions, which have some of the largest areas suitable for solar irrigation and high rates of malnutrition. “Lots of households have small panels of 50-100 watts to generate electricity for their homes. These panels aren’t big enough to attach a pump to, but their widespread use means that people are already aware of the benefits of solar power. There’s a solid foundation for increasing the uptake of solar pumps.”

Tlamadou Bengaly (left) owns a shop selling solar panels in the city of Sikasso, Mali. Photo: Thai Thi Minh / IWMI

Work has also started in Zambia. Through the World Bank-backed Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa (AICCRA) program, IWMI designed and implemented an accelerator grant. Twelve small and medium agribusinesses were announced as winners of the grant in February 2022 and will join the program as accelerator partners. These partners will collaborate with CGIAR scientists, including from IWMI, to rapidly scale up actionable climate information services (CIS) and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) innovation bundles to achieve water and food security in an inclusive manner.

The approach is already paying off. EcoTech, one of IWMI’s scaling partners in Mali, adopted the pay-as-you-own model. With AICCRA’s assistance, 6,255 farmers were reached in the Sikasso and Ségou regions, just over a quarter of whom were women. Farmers who used the pumps were able to grow cash crops such as onion, tomato, cabbage and potato during the dry season and increase their income by USD 5,262 per hectare.

AICCRA’s goal is to reach 300,000 farmers by the end of 2023, benefiting not only these farmers and their communities but also demonstrating the value of scaling partnerships for agricultural resilience more broadly.

I have now become a financially independent woman, able to provide food and pay the school fees of my six children.

Gati Bogodo, a widow and pay-as-you-own pump user in Sikasso, Mali

Data-driven tools for inclusive business growth

Across all these countries, data-driven tools are helping to support inclusive business growth. One of them is solar suitability maps. IWMI first began mapping solar irrigation suitability in Ethiopia in 2018. The maps pinpointed areas for smallholder farmers to introduce solar irrigation without depleting water resources. IWMI then refined the mapping framework to produce an online interactive tool for sub-Saharan Africa. Geospatial information on high-potential locations for solar pumps is now available for the entire region. An app-based version of the tool can be downloaded as part of GIZ’s Solar-powered Irrigation Systems toolbox.

Most recently, IWMI has been working with solar pump manufacturing and distribution companies to demonstrate how the maps and tools can be customized and incorporated into companies’ marketing strategies. One of these companies is PEG Africa, which operates in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal. Using the maps, PEG Africa identified the areas of biggest opportunity for its pumps, based on water resource type and depth. It then adapted its marketing strategy to focus on these areas.

As pump companies often lack detailed information about who their customers are, the solar suitability maps are supported by market segmentation data. Identifying and segmenting customer groups helps companies better target their products and services. This can open opportunities for growth, inform product development and improve customer retention.

IWMI conducted the first market segmentation study with Pumptech in northern Ghana. The study identified four segments among smallholders: resource-rich farmers, mobile farmers, resource-poor farmers and farmer groups. Each segment is slightly different in terms of the amount of water needed, access to land, pump preferences and capacity to pay for the pump.

We didn’t know that these farmers could afford our products until we interfaced with IWMI and segmented the market together. It was through the market segmentation that we realized we can’t have one size fits all. We have to design solutions or products for different user groups. This increased our sales significantly. We sold so many pumps after this intervention. It’s a win-win partnership.

Osman Sahanoon, Managing Director of Pumptech

Women and young farmers are especially likely to face difficulties accessing resources such as land, credit and information that would enable them to invest in irrigation. The pay-as-you-own financing model can help resource-poor farmers overcome the initial cost barrier. But a review of the scorecard Pumptech was using to assess customers’ creditworthiness showed that the criteria were biased toward farmers with greater resources, usually men.

These insights guided the development of a credit scorecard that is more sensitive to things like customers’ financial management skills and social capital through membership of associations. IWMI’s scaling partners are now using the revised scorecard to target a broader range of farmers, including women, more accurately. In addition, IWMI awarded a grant to four students at Ethiopia’s Bahir Dar University to develop an app-based scorecard for Rensys, as part of an innovation hackathon. The app, in which other private sector companies have expressed an interest, will ease data collection and analysis.

Toward irrigation for all

The strength of IWMI’s bundling approach lies in its adaptability and scalability. By effectively bundling existing services and technologies, the approach has the potential to solve key irrigation demand and supply issues and to serve as a pathway for scaling innovative irrigation solutions to many more farmers.


IWMI Project Lead:

Dr. Thai Thi Minh – Senior Researcher – Innovation Scaling West Africa Regional Office. Email: t.minh@cgiar.org


Cecily Layzell, IWMI Ghana Consultant

Web Layout:

Dominique Perera – Senior Manager-Digital Media

Cover Photo:

David Brazier / IWMI


The author would like to thank Thai Thi Minh and IWMI’s private sector partners for their insights and contributions to this story.

Key partners

  • CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems
  • USAID/Feed the Future
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)
  • World Bank
  • Pumptech
  • Rensys
  • EcoTech

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Economics and equity

At IWMI, researching underlying economic and social trends helps us understand why people migrate. They also explain the impact of remittances and loss of agricultural labor, as well as consequences of migration on gender roles and food and water security. For instance, communities with higher levels of income inequality, or relative deprivation, may experience greater levels of out-migration compared to consistently low-income communities. In addition, migration changes intra-household gender-labor composition, which can change the access of smallholders to water resources, affecting the functioning of community-based institutions and consequently household and local food security. IWMI also focuses on circular economy, a strategy to recover and reuse waste, to boost food security and understand how interventions can encourage refugee and host communities to retain scarce resources.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Urban & rural transformation

As agricultural opportunities fluctuate in rural areas, migration, particularly to urban areas, is an adaptation technique to secure incomes and alternative livelihoods. Income generated by migrants is often sent back to family as remittances to support communities at home. At IWMI, we assess linkages between rural and urban areas, as well as the role of agricultural knowledge systems and food and water security. We recognize there are complex push and pull factors such as individual aspirations, economic opportunity, social norms, climate variability and government policies which drive migration and affect rural communities, particularly youth. Our work follows a ‘positive migration’ philosophy, framing migration as an adaptation technique and socio-economic choice (in many cases) rather than a problem to be solved, and focuses on establishing safer, more regular migration by supporting changes to migration governance in sending regions.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Covid-19 disruption & adaptation

Covid-19 has caused a rupture in migration logistics and exposed inequities in the migration system, yet drivers of movement remain. Government lockdowns and closed borders due to the pandemic curtailed movement for migrants, posing complex problems for migrant hosting and origin countries. There have been significant economic shocks, with a sharp decline in unemployment for migrants and an inability to send money home through remittances to support family. Some migrants face social stigma for returning home without an income, particularly if families relied on loans to support their journeys. Consequences have been severe for informal migrants who lack government protection in their host countries. Migrants, particularly those living in crowded, lower-income neighborhoods, have been experiencing stigmatization related to the spread of Covid-19. We look at the impacts of Covid-19 on migration governance and rural areas across seven countries, development planning in Ghana, migration challenges in Southeast Asia, and community-based disaster management and resilience building in South Africa.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Water, climate change and agrarian stress

Migration, water and climate stress are inextricably linked to rural development. Water stress and climate variability can act as a driver of fragility, intensifying pre-existing political, social, economic and environmental challenges. Initiatives designed to address migration-related challenges must tackle inequalities and the exclusion of women, youth and marginalized groups; governance opportunities to better manage water and natural resources and technology and innovations to help communities escape socio-ecological precarity and thrive despite climate challenges. IWMI intends to build climate resilience by implementing projects which tackle gender-power inequalities in the face of dynamic, economic-social-ecological challenges. Our work brings together affected communities, institutional stakeholders and social actors to manage water in response to climate variability and agrarian stress, striving to address complex physical and social variables.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender, intersectionality and social inclusion

It is critical to center gender and intersectional identities when unpacking migration phenomena. Gender as a social construct guides social norms and relations, including the decision-making processes and mechanisms leading to migration. We recognize that the intersections between race, age, class, sex, caste and region shape the migrant experience.

IWMI strives to offer transformative approaches and solutions for women, youth and marginalized groups, regarding them as equal partners in our work rather than passive end-users.  For example, within communities that experience male out migration, socio-political systems are restructured to make women, youth and other groups active agents in their own agri-food transformation. Migration patterns contribute to the feminization of agriculture, and women may experience a greater burden of responsibility coupled with an increased ability to access and control resources and policies to build sustainable livelihoods. Acknowledging social complexities helps researchers and communities understand migration trends and address structural power imbalances to build a more equitable world.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Innovation bundles

Farmer-led irrigation development is about much more than installing a pump in a field. It requires access to financing, labor, energy, and input and output markets, so that investments in irrigation translate into sustainable returns. IWMI uses a systemic approach to understand the farming system as well as the factors in the enabling environment that prevent women, men and youth from engaging in and benefitting equitably from farmer-led irrigation. We partner with farmers and the public and private sectors to test contextually relevant innovation bundles that combine irrigation technology such as solar pumps with financing mechanisms like pay-as-you-own or pay-as-you-go, agricultural inputs and agronomic techniques. We also look at ways to improve on-farm water management and nutrient use efficiency and reduce evapotranspiration through digital advances and agricultural extension. We integrate the scaling of innovation bundles into agricultural value chains to enhance the impacts on farmers’ irrigation investments, incomes and livelihoods.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender and social inclusion

The barriers facing women and men in accessing irrigation technologies are not the same. Neither are the benefits. Social, cultural and religious norms influence inter- and intra-household power relations. These, in turn, affect access to resources such as land, credit, information and training. IWMI carries out cross-dimensional analysis of gender and social inclusion in policy, financing, livelihood assets and access, institutional approaches and interventions as well as gender-based technology preferences. For example, we work with farmers, financial institutions and the private sector to address gender-based constraints in credit scoring and enhance women’s purchasing power. But benefitting from farmer-led irrigation does not stop at accessing and adopting technologies; enabling women and resource-poor farmers to participate in input and output markets is equally important to ensure that investments in irrigation result in improved nutrition and economic empowerment. Other ways we enhance gender and social inclusion include tackling agency issues around financial management and literacy, livelihood diversity and social capital as well as access to infrastructure, extension services and market linkages.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Environmental sustainability

Population pressure and increasing water competition in a changing climate require us to take stock of the availability and use of water across scales. Water availability not only influences farmers’ commercial prospects but also irrigation-related enterprises and agri-businesses. Greater water scarcity could jeopardize irrigation and agricultural markets while excessive water use can lead to declining ecosystems, water quality and soil health. IWMI advises development partners and the public and private sectors on all aspects of water resource availability and use through a variety of advanced modeling and remote-sensing products and tools, including Water Accounting+solar irrigation mapping and internet of things. These are complemented by multi-criteria analysis to evaluate the potential of irrigation expansion, taking into consideration environmental flows. With our private sector partners, we are leveraging converging technologies, such as sensors on solar pumps that capture usage data, to encourage better resource management and governance.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Adaptive scaling and partnerships

The ability of farmers to engage in or expand irrigation depends on the prevailing socioeconomic, ecological and political contexts, which are often complex, non-linear and changeable. Overcoming systemic barriers to farmer-led irrigation development while taking advantage of existing opportunities requires scaling processes to be adaptive. This means diverse actors feed off, adapt to, support, cooperate, compete and interact with each other, forming different multi-actor networks and engaging in collective action to undertake various functions in the scaling ecosystem. IWMI works with farmers and public and private sector partners to co-design and pilot contextually relevant innovation bundles and their scaling pathways or strategies, influence policies and accelerate the transition to scale of innovations with demonstrated early impact.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Financing ecosystem

A lack of affordable credit, particularly for women and resource-poor farmers, is one of the main barriers to expanding farmer-led irrigation in low- and middle-income countries. But credit alone is not enough. Financing for irrigation equipment must be embedded in a wider financing ecosystem that bundles credit with inputs and services, market information and access, and technology such as digital payment. In several countries, irrigation equipment suppliers are stepping in to provide financing directly to farmers. In doing so, they increase their own risk. To address this issue, IWMI works with farmers, private companies, finance institutions and development partners such as the World Bank Group to analyze whether credit-scoring tools are inclusive. We also help to identify gaps in the financing ecosystem and de-risk the private sector from testing innovative end-user financing mechanisms that take into account farming system typologies, financial and social capital and crop seasonality.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Human capacity development and knowledge exchange

Scaling farmer-led irrigation requires strengthening human capacity and knowledge exchange among all actors and stakeholders involved. IWMI takes an action research approach, working with national and international research institutions, governments, extension agents and public and private organizations to co-develop the scaling ecosystem and strengthen capacity to drive scaling networks and collective action. We support the development of or reinforce national multi-stakeholder dialogues with the aim of sharing scaling experiences and realizing win-win collaboration, interactive learning and capacity development. Other modalities for capacity development include hackathons, innovation research grants for bachelor’s and master’s students, private sector scaling grants and innovation internships with private companies. These all serve to stimulate local and contextually relevant innovation, close the research-private sector divide and enhance job readiness among young professionals.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

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