Enabling clean energy driven sustainable agriculture in Africa

Opinion

 
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Access to reliable and affordable renewable energy is a driver and enabler towards improving agricultural productivity and the overall performance of agricultural value chains in Africa. With an energy deficit of 300 GW to be filled by 2030, a large proportion of African people continue to suffer energy poverty. Yet, the continent is one of the most endowed parts of the world with two key sources of renewable energy; namely sunlight and wind. Of course, geothermal and hydro-electricity are other key sources, but require greater financial investment to establish the necessary infrastructure.

Affordable clean energy has several areas of application in agricultural value chains. These include: (i) irrigating crops, especially the application of drip irrigation; (ii) driving automated solar-powered small-scale mechanised agriculture e.g. small-scale solar-powered soybean combine harvesters; and (iii) post-harvest processing and cold food chain ventures. The recognised role of clean energy as an important driver and enabler of development, and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explains the development sector’s central focus on the expansion of renewable energy resources in Africa.

Investment in renewable energy development is included in Africa’s Agenda 2063 targets, as well as in the Nationally Determined Contribution targets of most African countries’ climate change response plans. However, it is notable that about 48% of Africa’s population – an estimated 1.2 billion – have no access to clean energy. In other words, the poor have no access to clean energy. This calls for drastic and fast action if Africa is to attain the development aspirations of Agenda 2063 and deliver on the SDGs. Investments in renewable energy should focus on agriculture, which is the foundation for Africa’s economic and social development, as well as the overall wellbeing of the population.

Harmonising renewable energy policies

Several African countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa have been investing in large-scale geothermal, hydro, solar and wind energy power plants. Some investments span over three decades. Yet, access to clean energy is still limited, particularly for rural communities and the urban poor in informal settlements. Many factors contribute to this situation. One such factor is disjointed energy policies, which do not allow seamless transmission and distribution of clean energy across African countries. Harmonised policies will help to standardise transmission infrastructure, power ratings of equipment and tariffs to support access to clean energy across the continent. This will particularly benefit stakeholders in agricultural value chains, such as small-scale farming communities.

Intensifying investment in off-grid supplies

Reaching remote rural areas with clean, reliable and affordable energy can immensely transform agricultural production, as well as support investments in value addition and marketing. Africa continues to depend on rain-fed agriculture. This should not be the case. Rainfall patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable as a result of climate change. Farmers should therefore be encouraged to invest in on-farm ponds, into which rainwater can be harvested and pumped for drip irrigation, using solar pumps. Such irrigation systems spur year-round crop cultivation and production of healthy livestock and poultry, as well as support the apiculture industry, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.

Supporting youth to take up agribusiness through micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprise schemes has huge potential to not only create employment for and by the youth, but also promote the diversification and intensification of agricultural productivity. Such intensification and diversification is necessary if Africa is to achieve food and nutrition security. However, this can be curtailed by limited access to reliable clean energy. For example, perishable produce like vegetables and fruits – which are essential for nutrition security – cannot be produced at an economical scale without reliable clean energy to maintain produce quality during transit to markets.

Building capacities to support clean energy development

Africa continues to be a net importer of clean energy innovations and technologies. Solar panels, lighting systems, panels for cold rooms and refrigeration equipment are all imported. Further, maintenance services for such technologies are limited, especially in rural areas. To ensure the availability of adequate numbers of technicians to support the installation and maintenance of renewable energy plants, such as solar-powered systems, African countries should heavily invest in capacity building, especially through technical vocational education and training institutes.

Research for innovation and technology generation

Africa’s huge capacity to generate renewable energy is futile if investment in research is not concurrently pursued to generate technologies and innovations that enable the utilisation of clean energy at all scales of investment. It is therefore prudent to have a strong partnership between universities, industries, small-scale investors in agriculture and consumers to ensure that the innovations and technologies developed are relevant and affordable for end-users. Such innovations and technologies should incorporate considerations of resource efficiency and ease of maintenance, among other factors. There is opportunity for continent-wide investment in renewable energy research. The African Renewable Energy Initiative, for example, provides a platform for pooling financial and knowledge resources towards upscaling innovation so that Africa can build its internal capacity to generate, store, use and maintain renewable energy in agriculture.

Overall, renewable energy and agriculture should be considered as a nexus for sustainable inclusive development of agricultural value chains in Africa. A close partnership between research, policy, business and consumers is critically important to ensure Africa fulfils its potential to harness clean energy for increased agricultural productivity.