Energy for agriculture – a missing piece of the puzzle

By Emily Haves, Ashden International Programme Officer

By Emily Haves, Ashden International Programme Officer

Excitement abounded in the Ashden office when we agreed with USAID to dedicate one of our five 2014 International Ashden Awards to energy for agriculture.  Making use of clean energy in agriculture addresses numerous problems including food security, poverty, and climate change – here’s how.

Meeting our need for food

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food production must rise by 70% by 2050 to meet the needs of the world’s growing population. Certainly this need could be reduced by cutting waste, but the fact remains that we will need to find ways of producing more food.

Making use of energy to produce food can help us make the most efficient use of the limited amount of land we have to produce it. As some of our previous Award winners show, energy can be used at nearly every stage of food production.

For example, IDEI’s treadle pumps enable farmers irrigate fields throughout the year, and grow two to three crops annually where before they grew one. It can also be used in drying and storage. And at the end of the process, Fruits of the Nile’s solar driers enable producers to preserve their fruit so they can export it profitably.

Enabling all farmers, including smallholders, to make use of energy could dramatically increase their productivity.

But not all energy is the same. Relying on fossil fuels to help make our food means that food prices are tied to fossil fuel prices. So if oil prices go up, food prices go up. Using renewable energy, or finding ways to use less fossil fuels, breaks this link.

Tackling poverty

The fact that most of the world’s poor people are rural (70% according to the UN agency IFAD) and that most rural people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, means that increasing farmers’ incomes will significantly reduce poverty. Using clean energy can make this happen by increasing crop yields as well as through other innovations such as evaporative or solar-powered cold storage. These  help farmers keep their produce fresh so they can sell it when they’ll get the best price for it.

Mitigating climate change

While making use of energy in agriculture has the potential to increase productivity and boost incomes, if developing countries follow other countries in using carbon-intensive agricultural technologies the world will suffer. According to the FAO, the food sector (including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation marketing and consumption) currently accounts for approximately 30% of global energy consumption and produces over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

So if all of this makes perfect sense, why isn’t local, sustainable energy already being used throughout the agricultural supply chain? In some places it is, as demonstrated by IDEI’s treadle pumps and GERES’ solar greenhouses.

But, as USAID explains, there are still some major obstacles in the way:

  • "Farmers are not aware of the variety of new technologies that may be appropriate for them;
  • Clean energy technologies are relatively new, therefore farmers have limited access to distributors for installation, parts, and service; and
  • Farmers often do not have the means to cover high capital costs associated with clean energy upgrades - and financing is seldom available."

We want enterprises and programmes which are overcoming these challenges and delivering sustainable energy for agriculture to enter our International Awards. The winner will receive an award of between £20,000 and £40,000, a tailored support package to help scale up their work, and national and international media attention. So apply for a 2014 International Ashden Award here!