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Averting a COVID-19 food disaster by using solar agricultural technology

The Pandemic Compounds a Global Food Crisis

“By the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself.”

According to a recent Oxfam brief, COVID-19 is the final straw for millions of people already struggling with the impacts of conflict, climate change, inequality and a broken food system that has impoverished millions of food producers and workers. The number of people facing acute hunger worldwide could more than double from 135 million to 318 million. For households dependent on food production and livestock rearing, any disruption in the supply chain of agricultural inputs or the inability to access livestock markets, will likely lead to declines in crop and livestock production and sales.

Growing unemployment rates and fluctuating income, coupled with the rising cost of food has made it difficult for many households to afford enough to eat. The largest numbers of vulnerable communities are concentrated in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, especially in countries that are already confronting trouble, from military conflict and extreme poverty to climate-related afflictions like drought, flooding and soil erosion.

The Virus Exacerbates Existing Production and Supply-Chain Challenges

Across sub-Saharan Africa, supply-chain and agricultural production challenges existed long before the virus. Only 3.7% of arable land is currently irrigated and the majority of farmers who do irrigate employ manual or diesel powered pumps. Only 4% of rural households own a refrigerator and an estimated 30% of the food produced globally is lost or wasted somewhere along the food supply chain, in part due to inadequate cold chains.

“In response to the pandemic, the government of Nigeria closed interstate borders so even trucks transporting produce across the country could no longer cross state borders. Without cold rooms in agriculture aggregation areas or on transport trucks, so much food was wasted. Videos were going around social media of truck drivers dumping tonnes of produce and farmers destroying crops. It was really bad,” explains Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu.

Ikegwuonu is the CEO of ColdHubs, a Nigeria-based company specializing in solar-powered cold storage solutions. ColdHubs won the Global LEAP AwardsOff-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC), a competition to identify and promote the most energy-efficient, sustainable and cost-effective technologies that can meet the cold storage requirements for produce in sub-Saharan Africa. He says that the pandemic exposed the gaping holes in the agriculture cold chain in the region, “COVID-19 showed just how fragile our food system is. There needs to be greater attention on off-grid solar agriculture technologies to respond to this crisis and prepare for the next.”

Millions of subsistence farmers lack reliable energy and appliances that could play a critical role in mitigating the impacts of the pandemic. Over the last few years, decreasing costs for solar PV and batteries, coupled with improvements in technology efficiency and performance, have brought solar-powered agricultural technology within reach for hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers. There is now an opportunity – made more crucial during the pandemic – to increase food production and reduce waste for the world’s most vulnerable through improved access to irrigation and cooling.

Off-Grid Cold Chain Reduces Post-Harvest Losses

Nearly half of Kenyans live without access to the-grid, where cold storage for produce is practically nonexistent. As a result, shelf life is drastically reduced, and a considerable percentage of produce spoils before it can be consumed. John Mbindyo, Director of FreshBox, another OGCCC Finalist, explains that most fruit and vegetable vendors “get leaves, cover the produce when they close shop in the evening, come back in the morning, open it up and sell what they can. What they can’t sell they just throw away.”

Modern cold chains like FreshBox and ColdHubs manage the temperature of perishable goods, maintaining quality and safety from farm to table. Reducing post-harvest loss by establishing reliable, extensive solar powered cold chains could increase food supply by 15% . Effective cold chains can also enable better commercialization of agricultural produce in regional markets and give farmers greater bargaining power at the marketplace, often increasing their profits.

With each passing month of pandemic turmoil, the need to maximize crop output and reducing post-harvest loss grows more urgent. Cold chain technologies and solar-powered pumps together can enable farmers that live in areas with unreliable electricity to reduce waste, increase access to new markets, and improve productivity and crop diversity.

Solar-Powered Irrigation Can Bolster and Income Food Security

Travel restrictions and lockdowns have led to market closures and forced migrant farm workers to flee home, resulting in massive food spoilage and crop failures. Beyond the current growing season, production of future crops is also threatened as many farmers cannot access necessary agricultural inputs like seeds, tools, or fertilizer.

Solar water pumps – a clean, modern irrigation system – have the potential to increase yields by as much as two to three fold and incomes by two to six fold depending on crop, climate, and wider enabling factors like market pricing and access to markets. Solar water pumps allow farmers to grow a wider variety of nutritious crops, expand seasonal growing cycles, and mitigate periods of low or irregular rainfall. This provides households with more predictable income and makes them less vulnerable to external shocks and changes in weather patterns due to climate change.

Malinda Changwe is a maize and watermelon farmer from Tanzania. In 2018, he bought a solar water pump to replace a fuel pump which cost him $12 USD to run per week. Aside from upfront purchase, the solar pump is cost-free to run.

“Because the solar water pump has no other expenses, I irrigate my farm more often and with less concern. This has caused my farm productivity to change,” he explains. With a bigger yield, Changwe’s income has increased and he now produces enough food keep for personal consumption. Studies have shown that solar water pumps can also provide water in homes and clinics, improving sanitation and reducing the time largely spent by women and children collecting water.

Affordability Poses a Barrier, Especially in a Global Pandemic

As off-grid solar markets mature, affordability remains the biggest barrier to achieving scale for solar-powered agricultural solutions. The average entry-level solar water pump costs $600, compared to $200 for a diesel version. Only 13% of smallholder farmers in SSA can afford a pump with access to credit, which is often unavailable.

Solar-powered cold chain technologies are even more expensive than pumps, and the market is less mature. The total serviceable market for these technologies in SSA comprises 6.49 million farmers. However, just 3.5% (230,000) could currently afford an $825, 100-liter fridge and solar power system.

The most recent cost data and analyses on off-grid solar market potentials were conducted in 2018, before the pandemic further exacerbated financial insecurity for millions. In a recent survey of 18,000 low-income energy customers from SSA and South Asia, 80% of families reported that their financial situation had worsened since the start of the pandemic.

Even with financing, purchasing an appliance was already a stretch for the vast majority of these households. As incomes decline and uncertainty about the future increases, large purchases with high upfront costs, including appliances that could increase income and productivity, are on indefinite hold.

Call to Action: Further Support Needed to Subsidize the Uptake of Appliances

“Anticipatory actions must be undertaken now to safeguard the livelihoods of the most vulnerable people and related agrifood systems to protect the critical food supply chain,” urged the World Food Programme earlier this year.

Appliances build resiliency for vulnerable communities, especially during a global shock like COVID-19. Over 200 companies selling high-performing appliances suitable for off- and weak-grid communities face urgent financial distress. While efforts to develop a relief fund may enable them to stay in business, subsidizing product sales for financially insecure customers is mutually beneficial for consumers and companies. Positive subsidies, especially for agricultural technology, can help build a sustainable market that will outlast the pandemic and protect the livelihoods of many of the most food insecure.

The UN is calling on the world’s wealthiest countries to contribute $60 billion in relief aid to address hunger. Just 0.1% of that amount, $60 million, would finance over 150,000 solar water pumps and 5,000 solar powered cooling solutions for agriculture technologies to benefit half a million people.

Swift action now can mitigate mass hunger. Increased uptake of solar-powered agricultural equipment poses a viable solution for short-term relief and long-term food system sustainability.

 

Source: GOGLA