Decentralised renewable energy (DER), or off-grid renewables, can support productive activity at all stages of the agri-food chain. It makes sense to integrate from irrigation to food production, through post-harvest processes, including agro-processing and food preservation for storage and transport. The relationship between agribusiness, decentralised energy innovators and governments can be a catalyst for greater food security.
The case for using DER is most compelling in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Two-thirds of the population there depend on agriculture for livelihoods. There already exists a deficit of energy and grid infrastructure. This, in turn, impedes the potential to produce far more food than currently capable.
The published analysis shows that with increased investment, including about $65 billion in irrigation and $8 billion in crop storage, there is potential to double or triple the region’s agricultural productivity. This can further motivate continuing to forge the relationship between renewables and food security.
Renewables and food security: Providing cold comfort and tackling waste
Cold storage is a particularly urgent issue and worth investment. The total value of food that is lost annually due to lack of refrigeration is $4 billion throughout all of Africa and $4.5 billion in India. In Sub-Saharan Africa, loss of perishable fruits and vegetables can reach up to 50 per cent annually. In Uganda, where 70 per cent of the population is involved in smallholder agriculture, solar-powered refrigeration could cut agricultural output loss by 30–50 per cent.
As well as preserving the food already produced, the world should take note of what could be produced, and the market that could exist, if DER is taken seriously.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa spent $64.5 billion importing food in 2020. This is projected to rise to over $110 billion by 2025, should there be no interventions. These commodities, which can be produced on the continent, include rice, beef, soybeans, sugar and wheat, among others.
Can DER build genuine agriculture capacities?
Power for All, an agency dedicated to decentralised renewables in developing countries, recently released its 2019 Powering Jobs Census Report. Their research found that solar irrigation helped Kenyan smallholders grow more crops throughout the year, leading to an increase in their yields of 300 per cent. The study also found that DRE can increase the value of agricultural products. Using solar dryers to create banana chips in Thailand increased the price of banana chips sold by 70%, resulting in an increased income of $1.5 million per year.
Meanwhile, from an ESG perspective, micro-grid hydro plants powering grain mills in Nepal have reduced the time and workload of women by over 75 per cent. Previously they performed at least 2 hours of grain processing by hand, and that has reduced to half an hour via mechanisation. A further example comes from Zimbabwe. Following the installation of solar water pumps, women who previously spent 6 hours per day walking to collect water for their gardens—containing crops like spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, and others—now only spend 1-2 hours daily.
The social, economic and food security rationale for exploring and investing in decentralised renewable technology in agriculture looks strong. It is up to the will, vision and industry of policymakers, regulators, financial institutions, and decentralised energy and agribusiness practitioners to plot a path forward to fruition.