A year-old project in Benin has shown that harnessing the power of sunlight could provide long-term solutions to hunger in underdeveloped nations. A six-month dry season in the Kalale District of Benin used to wreak havoc on farming villages. Now, with solar technology, according to those working on the project, it brings flourishing crops. Uma Ramiah has more from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.
Moumouni Chabi Sika is happy to explain that today, in Kalale, people have vegetables all year round. Soon, he says, they will also have electricity for their schools and medical clinics.
Sika is a member of a local development group called by its French acronym ADESCKA. He says that before, people in the Kalale district were struggling to feed themselves during a long and hard dry season.
But now, they are talking about how their produce can help feed Benin, and eventually, even be exported to other West African countries.
In August of 2007, water pumps and drip irrigation systems were installed in two villages in the Kalale district of Benin. Powered by energy harnessed from the sun, the systems provide running water and irrigation for farming.
The project will eventually extend to 44 villages in the region.
The systems were installed by the Washington D.C. based non-profit group Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, in partnership with ADESCKA.
SELF director Robert Freling says that in time, the project will also provide electricity and wireless communications.
But for now, the main goal is food production.
"A centerpiece of the project will be focused on agriculture because from November to April every year, there is essentially no food production whatsoever," he explained. " It is a serious problem in Benin and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. And so we have decided to address this problem by providing solar water pumping and drip irrigation to help farmers grow food during the dry season."
According to SELF, 95 percent of the population in the Kalale district of Benin rely on subsistence farming to survive. During the dry season, people trying to grow food had to transport water manually from rivers and lakes.
Now, with the new solar irrigation systems, water moves through piping systems.
The project relies on photovoltaic technology, where sunlight is converted directly to electricity.
Freling says the project, not yet one year old, has already provided tangible benefits to the two villages.
"The fields, which were previously barren during this time of year, are now filled with all sorts of leafy green vegetables and fruits," Freling said. "We are expecting that maybe 20, 25 percent of the produce will be consumed locally by the people. So there has been a dramatic increase in the level of nutrition and food security for the people in these villages. The idea is that the excess will be sold to market."
According to the United Nations, one third of the worlds population lives without electricity.
Freling says that solar technology is a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution to that problem as well.
But he says the systems are an investment.
One challenge is finding ways to finance the projects.
"Photovoltaics is a very elegant solution but it has a high upfront capital cost," he noted. "So the question is how you can enable families and communities to pay for these systems which are expensive initially but over time in many cases actually cheaper than anything else available."
With projects in 15 countries across the world, the organization uses microcredit loans and community participation to fund the projects and ensure local ownership.
But Freling says not many aid organizations are willing to invest in solar energy.
"It takes a longer term mindset. If you are looking short term for what is most affordable today, solar might appear to be too expensive. But if you take a longer term view, and consider life cycle costs, solar becomes very attractive compared to most of the other options available to rural villages that do not have access to grid electricity," he said.
West Africa has been especially hard hit by skyrocketing food prices across the world. Rioters have spilled onto the streets in Senegal, Burkina Faso and other West African countries, protesting the rising costs of living.
Freling says the United Nations and other international bodies should more seriously consider solar energy as a part of the solution.
"Looking at this food crisis right now clearly there are a number of things, it is a very complicated situation involving international trade, subsidies, etc, but to the extent that we can help local farmers in a place like Benin grow their own food sustainably, we are helping provide a long term solution for this crisis," Freling said.
In Kalale, Sika says he met recently with a womens' organization using the irrigation systems for their own farming projects.
He asked if they were happy with the results.
The answer was yes, he said. The women told him the water was helping them not only feed their families, but also to gain extra income to send their children to school.