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What Does It Take To Break a Solar Water Pump?

Published: 06 April, 2020

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Solar water pumps hold the potential to transform the agriculture sector across sub-Saharan Africa by offering a clean, cost-effective long-term irrigation solution for millions of smallholder farmers. However, very little is known about product performance in real-world settings, consumer experiences, and actual impact of these products on end-users. To learn more about this unique product, CLASP met with a company pioneering off-grid product testing in Western Kenya.

Solar water pumps (SWP) are a reliable irrigation option for remote areas, particularly areas where grid power is erratic or not available, or during periods of fuel shortages or price volatility. Studies have shown that SWP can dramatically improve farmers’ quality of life, mainly through increased income, better yields, and greater savings. Access to water also improves farmers’ resilience to climate shocks, such as unreliable rainfall patterns and drought.

Despite the potential benefits, SWP uptake is very low across East Africa. One of the biggest challenges facing the off-grid SWP industry is poor understanding of product use and customer needs. Field testing presents an opportunity to input consumer feedback into product design and ensure that products are appropriately designed for harsh climates.

In February, CLASP’s Nya Abagi and Jeff Stottlemyer traveled to Kisumu, Kenya to meet with Kijani Testing to learn more about their approach to SWP field testing. Kijani is a new company that aims to provide comprehensive field-testing and quality assurance services for emerging technologies in East Africa.

Don Gaitano, Kijani Field Technician, demonstrates the pump testing process.

Kinya Kimathi, Projects Director at Kijani, welcomed the CLASP team and provided a tour of the office. Recognizing the importance of local testing, Kijani conducts durability lab tests to push products to the limit and intentionally try to break them down in order to understand product weaknesses.

Thousands of life changing innovations are unsuccessful due to a lack of understanding of the target market. At the very least, product designers need to be able to answer these two questions - is your product bringing value to the customer? What is the user experience? The most effective way to get these answers is by having your product out in the field, in customers’ hands."

The team monitors product performance in customers’ homes by collecting quantitative data through a series of remote monitors. They also conduct site visits to answer questions from the remote monitoring data and learn more about the product use cases.

In order to better understand SWP use cases and impacts on consumer lives, CLASP spent the afternoon with a Johnson Ogal, a farmer who has been using two SWP for more than two years. Ogal draws his water from a well on his farm and uses the pumps to mainly irrigate citrus trees.

The pump has enabled Ogal to substantially increase his productivity, “My forty-seven citrus trees now flower continuously and I am able to also grow bananas, pumpkins, tomatoes, and a variety of other vegetables,” Ogal explained. During the dry season, he also uses his pump to provide water to the community.

“The solar water pump is better than my diesel pump because I don’t have to pay for diesel now. I like it because solar is free of charge and does not require manual labor.” Ogal admitted that drawing water from his well was a time and energy intensive task. Check out the pump in action.

Kijani's Field Technician Don Gaitano demonstrates pump testing to CLASP's Nya Abagi

For the typical off-grid consumer, solar water pumps are a large investment. High-cost coupled with hard environmental conditions like high ambient temperatures and humidity common in off-grid regions make product design, quality and durability critically important considerations in product design. Field testing ensures that products brought to market will meet unique environmental challenges and consumer needs.

Through the Efficiency for Access Coalition, CLASP is seeking qualified consultants to support a series of field testing projects focused on SWP and refrigerators. Over the next two years, the Coalition will also be running a consumer awareness campaign in Kenya to share the benefits and encourage the uptake of solar water pumps among smallholder farmers.


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