Getting the basics right for developing and marketing off-grid renewables for agriculture

Opinion

 
by and

Most farms in Africa are small. Something like 33 million smallholder farms produce 80% of Africa’s food. Across the continent, a mind-boggling amount of manual labour happens every day under the hot sun: tilling furrows by hand, hoeing weeds, hauling water in buckets to irrigate, hand-shelling maize, chopping feed for cattle.

It is widely known that farm productivity can be greatly increased by using agricultural machinery. These machines can be difficult to get hold of and expensive to maintain. They also generally rely on hydrocarbon fuel, which is expensive and polluting. This seems crazy because:

1. Africa has amongst the highest levels of solar irradiation in the world;

2. Efficient, electrically-powered agricultural machines can be driven by solar energy, and;

3. Solar PV panels are now very cheap (costs have fallen from over €88/watt in 1975 to well under a €0.88/watt today).

So why hasn’t there already been an explosion in solarised agricultural tools? What’s holding it back?

The temptation is to point out how difficult it is doing business in Africa. Import tariffs, political instability, corruption, poor infrastructure. Certainly, addressing any of these would be helpful for any company operating in this challenging market. But are those just excuses?

Our experience suggests there are three big issues which are too-often neglected by organisations working in this space:

Issue one: Product market fit

We should be honest with ourselves. A good product will succeed in spite of the above structural challenges. What we really should be asking is… Have we designed products and business models which really fit the needs of the market? I mean, REALLY?

Take Unilever’s OMO brand detergent sachets, which can be found in almost any small kiosk you might stumble across in rural Africa. They are designed for hand washing in cold water. The tiny ‘low unit packs’ are said to have come about after Unilever noticed shopkeepers were splitting up larger pack sizes for their low-income customers, so they began packaging them accordingly. They made the product fit that market.

So, the same broad principles of finding product-market fit advocated by any Silicon Valley start-up DO apply. Does your product do something valuable for the customer? And can they afford it?

Issue two: The right distribution model

Conventional channel distribution, where you sell through one or two tiers of distribution partners, can be immensely powerful. Sometimes the wheel does not need to be reinvented. Find the right partners and you reach customers far more quickly and with far fewer headaches than you could do yourself. A high-quality partner knows their way around doing business in their own country, and can be trained and supported.

However, distributors require incentivisation in the form of margins, sometimes large ones. This can be a challenge when the goal is keeping that consumer price down. Perhaps the rise of smartphones amongst farmers will offer some opportunities for leaner distribution models.

Issue three: Reliability

This part is the job of the manufacturer. In order to drive down cost, products are commonly sourced in the Far East. Nothing wrong with that, but is there the control to refine and improve? Is there enough shared language and a shared mission with the manufacturing partner? Design and manufacture, in our experience, is a continuum of iterative improvement. You need to listen carefully to the customer, and you need to make changes based on what you learn. Refine, redesign, and listen again.

Agricultural machines, solar or otherwise, tend to get a rough ride during their service life. They spend their time outside in all conditions being moved about and used daily on dusty farms. However robust the design, we’ve learnt that you need to plan how you’re going to fix problems rather than hope that they don’t occur.

To enable African agriculture to take advantage of clean energy, the organisations offering these solutions must get these basics right. There is no magic bullet nor any special case for working in Africa. We need to operate at least as professionally as any company serving affluent consumers, and we need to outcompete those offering fossil technology.

At Futurepump, our thing is solar irrigation. We design and manufacture solar pumps specifically for small-scale horticultural farmers across the tropics. Solar irrigation enables farmers to increase their incomes by growing more high-value crops in dry seasons. It saves them money which would have been spent on petrol or diesel fuel, and also results in carbon savings by using solar instead of these hydrocarbon fuels. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we’re open to sharing information and experience with anyone working in off-grid renewables or small-scale agriculture. You can reach us via our website, futurepump.com or at facebook.com/futurepump