IYFF: Using the Sun to Empower Women and Help Family Farmers

Men install the solar panels for a solar drip irrigation project with SELF at Bessassi in the West African nation of Benin (Thomas Szymanski)

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2014 to the International Year of Family Farming. For many family farmers in the developing world, innovations that combine “high” and “low” technologies can make a big difference in profitability and overall quality of life.

For farmers in countries with a dry season and a wet season, irrigation represents a chance to double the amount of crops they can grow in a year. But diesel-powered irrigation can be expensive, and watering crops by hand is time consuming. Solar drip irrigation represents a potentially transformative technology for many family farmers in the developing world. The technology combines solar (photovoltaic) water-pumping and low-pressure drip irrigation. This enables farmers in remote, dry regions to grow crops that are high in nutritional and monetary value year-round.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a non-profit organization based in the United States, is working to implement solar technology in developing countries to reduce poverty. A recent SELF initiative is the Solar Market Gardens project in the West African nation of Benin.

SELF’s Solar Market Gardens project in Kalalé, Benin will enable groups of women farmers’ cooperatives to grow more crops. This program is based on one implemented by the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Niger.

Traditional irrigation in West Africa can take many hours because it requires water to be hauled from rivers. If solar drip irrigation is implemented on a wider scale, the extra time it saves can be especially important for women and girls, who shoulder most of the burden of collecting water.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, noted in a report released in March, time poverty is an especially difficult problem for female farmers, who often have to undertake child rearing and other domestic work without pay on top of their farm work. Time-saving technologies represent not just a way to increase nutrition and decrease poverty, but also a way to empower women. De Schutter’s report also noted, men are leaving rural areas to pursue job opportunities in cities at a faster rate than women, and as a direct result, the number of family farm households headed by females in increasing. Any technology that can help to empower women will therefore also be important to family farmers in the developing world.

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