Many irrigation systems in Africa and all over the world are still running on fuel pumps. What another great field where solar can make a huge difference! We’re proud to present you SunCulture from Kenya, one of our wonderful finalists. Charles Nichols, Co-Founder and CTO, explains why and how they founded SunCulture, how they can make a tremendous impact in the farming industry and what the AgroSolar Irrigation Kit™ is all about.
Describe your product and its history! What is your unique value proposition and your business model?
SunCulture designs, manufactures, finances and distributes solar-powered irrigation systems and services that make it simpler and cheaper for farmers in Africa to grow high quality fresh fruits and vegetables, making them more successful, and was the first company to commercialize solar-powered drip irrigation in Africa. The company’s AgroSolar Irrigation Kit™ replaces expensive fuel pumps with a more efficient solar powered solution. Additionally, the system replaces traditional, unreliable irrigation techniques, thus saving farmers water, labor and time. The solution relies on solar power to pump water into a raised tank, after which gravity directs the water through irrigation lines directly to crops. Switching to SunCulture’s system increases a farmer’s yields by up to 300% and decreases water usage by up to 80%. In the next year, current SunCulture farmers will save 370 million gallons of freshwater, generate over 84,000 kilowatt hours of renewable energy, and grow over 20 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.
What is your vision in regards to the future of the energy economy? And how does your product contribute to this future?
In Kenya, it costs small scale farmers Kenya Shillings 20,000 (US $200) monthly in fuel and labor to irrigate their farms using diesel engine pumps and flood irrigation methods. This cost is out of reach for the majority of smallholders, leading to a situation where only 4% of farmland is irrigated in the predominantly arid and semi-arid country. Applying affordable, clean and reliable solar energy to smallholder irrigation increases household incomes by an average of US $10,000 annually and improves food security, health and education while removing the need for environmentally determinal diesel engine pumps. SunCulture enables an energy transition on these small farms by providing farmers with the capital required acquire solar pumps on a Pay As You Grow finance program that ties repayments to farm cash flows along with agronomic support services to ensure farmers have the knowledge to run successful and profitable agribusinesses.
What are, in your opinion, the key challenges of the energy transition in general, and what are they specifically for your startup?
In Kenya, rural electrification rates are low and energy prices are expensive. Therefore, in many areas off-grid renewable energy solutions provide an ideal solution to providing communities with the energy necessary to develop. Solar energy systems in particular provide an ideal solution to the lack of energy access. However despite steep declines in prices of solar panels, batteries and other relevant technologies, high system costs are still a challenge for the low-income rural population. However, with the advent of Pay As You Go business models, solar energy solutions have become significantly more affordable. These business models are working capital intensive and therefore require significant amounts of funding, often scarce in developing markets like Eastern Africa which therefore provides a bottleneck to scaling these successful business models.
Where are you based, and who are the key innovation drivers in the energy ecosystem in your region?
SunCulture’s products are available in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Zambia with the company’s headquarters located in Nairobi, Kenya. Eastern Africa is a hotbed of renewable energy innovation with many companies providing solar home systems on a Pay As You Go basis leveraging mobile money technology, particularly in Kenya. This innovative financing method has enabled solar systems which were previously too expensive for low income households to become affordable for millions in the region.
Which results for your startup do you expect from the Tech Festival by DENA in March 2017?
To connect with other like-minded entrepreneurs and industry leaders and exchange ideas on the future of tech driven innovation in the energy sector.
SunCulture designs, manufactures, finances and distributes solar-powered irrigation systems and services that make it simpler and cheaper for farmers in Africa to grow high quality fresh fruits and vegetables, making them more successful, and was the first company to commercialize solar-powered drip irrigation in Africa. The company’s AgroSolar Irrigation Kit™ replaces expensive fuel pumps with a more efficient solar powered solution. Additionally, the system replaces traditional, unreliable irrigation techniques, thus saving farmers water, labor and time.