For more than 25 years, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has worked to deliver solar power to rural villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At SELF, our belief is that energy is a human right, and that without access to clean, modern energy, community development becomes virtually impossible.

Our Solar Market GardenTM (SMG) project in Kalale, a poor, arid region in Benin, is a good example of how the “Green Leap” is transforming village life in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kalale, a pronounced dry season makes it difficult for women farmers to grow food from November through April. But now, thanks to solar energy, year-round food production is now a reality in Benin’s remote villages. SELF’s Solar Market Garden project combines solar-powered pumps with drip irrigation systems  to provide a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to pump water for irrigation from nearby rivers and underground aquifers. The SMG system provides reliable, year-round, production of high-value, nutritious produce, allowing girls and women to reallocate their time to educational and economic pursuits, rather than having to haul water long distances. It also empowers them to become entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. By embracing solar power and micro-irrigation technologies, these female leaders are trailblazing solutions for both climate change mitigation and adaptation that can be replicated throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 12.05.45 PMOur efforts were recognized by the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. In December 2015, they announced that the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) was one of the winners of its prestigious competition to become a 2015 “Momentum for Change Lighthouse Activity.” The UN showcased SELF’s Solar Market Garden project at the COP21 climate change talks in Paris.

The Solar Market Garden project has replaced diesel generators with solar pumps, avoiding a minimum of 0.86 tonnes of carbon emissions annually per garden, and has provided a means for the most vulnerable in Sub-Saharan Africa to adapt to future water shortages resulting from climate change. If similarly sized liquid-fuel pump sets (0.75–1.5 kW) were to be used, they would consume 0.15 litres of fuel per cubic meter of water pumped, generating a minimum of 0.86 tonnes of carbon emissions per year – 12.9 tonnes over a 15 year period. With 11 Solar Market Gardens in operation, that calculates to 9.46 tonnes of avoided carbon emissions per year – 141.9 tonnes of carbon emissions avoided over the next 15 years.

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In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Solar Market Garden model enhances the sequestration of these gases by allowing for the intercropping of several different tree species that were planted in the gardens. With a carbon sequestration rate of 22.7 kg of carbon per tree, per year, the 2,031 newly planted trees will sequester more than 46 metric tonnes per year.

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Village Transformation
Residents are experiencing the transformative power that this simple and effective technology has had on their lives. Food security in the villages has increased; each garden has supplied nearly two tonnes of high-value fruits and vegetables per month. And because the communities now have year-round access to quality produce, their nutrition has improved. The income of the 400 women farmers has also increased by an extra USD 7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at a local market.

Where they formerly had little influence, the women of the 11 participating farming cooperatives have raised their status in the community and are regarded as successful farmers and entrepreneurs responsible for bringing fresh produce to local markets that serve more than 66,000 individuals.

The Solar Market Garden beneficiaries recently took the culturally radical step of electing a women-run, all beneficiary administrative board for ADESCA, SELF’s local NGO partner. Together, SELF and ADESCA, are devoted to working to optimize the gardens’ output and to expand them to more of the 32 remaining villages in the district.

Building on the success achieved by these pioneer women in Benin, SELF is working to refine the Solar Market Garden into a model that can be widely replicated and scaled throughout the world. By harnessing the power of the sun to water their crops like the women farmers in Benin have done, other women will now be able to lift themselves out of poverty and secure their future. With solar panels and pumps being more reliable and less expensive to run than liquid fuel alternatives, this technology is well suited to the poor who have limited resources and great need.

While the entire continent can benefit from drip irrigation, it is expanding most rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Drip irrigation has resulted in yield gains of up to 100%, water savings of up to 80%, and associated fertilizer, pesticide, and labor savings over conventional irrigation systems. These statistics are good for food production and water savings, but substituting diesel pumps with solar pumps offers additional benefits in terms of climate change and economics.

The Business Model
To overcome the initial cost of photovoltaic technology at the household level, SELF has pioneered a variety of financing mechanisms which enable families to purchase solar energy systems over time, paying only slightly more than what they previously spent on kerosene, candles, and dry-cell batteries. We are now pioneering the use of solar micro-grids — powering an entire village with a micro-solar power plant. We’re examining state-of-the-art technology solutions as well as various payment options, including micropayments made through mobile phones, to see how best to introduce a solar micro grid across the world.