Harvesting the sun twice: Enhancing livelihoods in East African agricultural communities through innovations in solar energy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Animal and Plant Sciences


Access to energy is a widespread problem across East Africa, where 73% of the population still do not have reliable electricity. Proving secure and affordable energy infrastructure is crucial to promoting inclusive development of rural communities in this region, and solar power is a sustainable way of achieving this. However, ground mounted arrays of solar panels also remove land from food production at a time when crop yields are threatened by a changing climate and increasing populations, insecure ownership and land "grabbing" are putting pressure on land resources. In practice, economic growth linked to conventional solar arrays may be outweighed by reduced income from crop production and greater food insecurity. Renewable energy technologies which resolve energy, climate and land security conflicts are urgently needed.
So called agrivoltiac (AV) systems permit the delivery of solar electricity, crop production, and rainwater harvesting on the same land area. Instead of being ground mounted, arrays are several meters high, enabling crops to be grown underneath. In locations with high light intensity, high temperature, and low rainfall, such as many places in East Africa, the productivity of crops grown beneath these elevated solar arrays can be significantly improved because shade from the panels creates a more favourable growing environment with reduced heat stress and water loss. This more favourable environment for plants means the range of crops can be extended to higher-value ones, which can improve farmer incomes in disadvantaged rural communities. Crops may also be grown in locations previously unsuitable, further increasing food supplies and revenue sources.
Working with African solar developers and a Kenyan agribusiness company, as well as non-governmental organisations, regional political organisations and local communities, we have identified case study sites in Kenya and Uganda where solar arrays are being installed and our interdisciplinary research can be conducted. The project aims to provide a real test case for the application and adaptation of AV systems to the needs of communities in Eastern Africa by:
a) Identifying areas in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that are most physically suitable (e.g. climate, existing land use, lack of energy access) for realising the benefits of AV systems and their uptake by communities.
b) Field testing of AV systems in communities in Kenya & Uganda to provide data on resulting livelihood enhancement (increasing crop yield and farmer income, access to sustainable energy) as well as perceptions and attitudes of rural communities to AV systems.
c) Using the data collected to develop a decision support tool for regional and national governments and NGOs to deliver AV systems effectively and in line with community needs.
The findings from this project will reveal the potential this technology to lead to livelihood improved access to energy and increased incomes through production of higher-value crops, as well as the barriers within local communities to the uptake of AV systems. It will also show which economic, social, cultural and political factors help or hinder the expansion of AV systems in this region. We will assess how AV technology can best be co-designed with the users and seek input from national and regional policymakers to inform the potential rollout of AV systems across East Africa and potentially beyond.

Planned Impact

Developing agrivoltaic (AV) systems combining energy and food production will provide multiple socio-economic, livelihood, and ecological benefits, extending well beyond technology and electrification. As AV systems are climate change resilient, reduce evapotranspiration, mitigate drought stresses and enhance crop growth, this project's ultimate goal is to increase energy, food, water and land use security, benefiting the individuals who live and work in rural East African communities. The project beneficiaries represent numerous groups, directly and indirectly, within both the project areas and extended geographical region.

Initially, farm workers, smallholders and other stakeholders near the study sites, whose livelihoods depend on agriculture will gain significant benefits from the project. Improving growing conditions under AV systems has previously facilitated the growth of high-value crops where previously they would not grow. This project will therefore lead to increased value of crop yields and subsequent economic benefits for businesses and landowners. Less stressed plants are also more nutritious, thereby improving the health of consumers. Working under AV shade, rather than in direct sunlight, improves the health and wellbeing of farm labourers. Conventional energy developments may detract from community members' sense of place, which are often administered and built by foreign multinationals solely for electricity generation and income. AV systems directly involve the local community, providing them with an income source through improved marketable crops and maintenance jobs, and maintaining engagement with energy developments.

Secondary beneficiaries will be the local populations, initially located in the study sites, but later on a larger spatial scale. As conventional solar energy developments are typically constructed on open land, critical ecosystem services are often lost through the removal of existing flora and fauna, thereby limiting, for example, carbon sequestration, soil stabilisation, and the flood mitigation properties of the land. By building AV systems on existing arable land, combining electricity and food production, the land use change barriers to electrification are overcome. This mitigates negative livelihood impacts from energy projects by enhancing ecosystem services (e.g. providing plants for carbon sequestration, reducing soil erosion, and restricting flood water runoff) rather than degrading them, while still providing the benefits associated with supplying low carbon, renewable and stable electricity. This multifunctional land use will become increasingly critical in stressed future East African environments. Further population-level benefits include water conservation, improving local population's water sources for drinking water abstraction: we predict a 25% reduction in water consumption for AV systems with rainwater harvesting in southern Kenya. Water conservation is a significant challenge in East Africa, with crop yields predicted to decline by 8-45% under simulated future
conditions. Increasing the volume of rainwater available for crop irrigation will reduce overall water stress, increasing the amount available for drinking and other uses.

On the larger temporal scale, increased electrification in East Africa will bring a number of subsequent benefits. Reduced diesel generator usage at the household level will improve local air quality by limiting the release of harmful pollutants (notably NOx, SOx and PM), thereby positively affecting air quality and human health. In parallel, the replacement of household biomass cook-stoves with electric cookers will further improve indoor air quality. Further, enhanced electrification for rural communities offers increased refrigeration for food storage and post-harvest production, predictable storage of medicines, lighting for evening study, and computer technologies for schools.


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