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

Context

Access to energy is a widespread problem across East Africa, where 55% of the population still do not have reliable electricity. Providing 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. Renewable energy technologies that resolve energy, climate and land security conflicts are urgently needed.

Agrivoltaic (AV) systems permit the delivery of solar electricity, crop production, and rainwater harvesting on the same land area. Instead of being mounted close to the ground, arrays are constructed several meters high and with gaps between the arrays - 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.

Aims and objectives

Working with African solar developers and a Kenyan agribusiness company, as well as non-governmental organisations, regional political organisations and local communities, case study sites have been identified in Kenya and Uganda where solar arrays are being installed for the 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 for 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.

Principal Investigator

Co-Investigators

  • Dr Steve Cinderby (Stockholm Environment Institute at York)
  • Dr Matthew Cotton (University of York)
  • Dr Karen Parkhill (University of York)
  • Dr Christine Lamanna (World Agroforestry Centre)
  • Dr Clement Okia (World Agroforestry Centre)
  • Mr Emmanuel Temu (World Agroforestry Centre)
  • Mr Joel Oduor Onyango (African Centre for Technology Studies)
  • Ms Eileen Lara (Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation)

GCRF ESRC

  • University of Sheffield
  • Stockholm Environment Institute
  • African Centre for Technology Studies
  • World Agroforestry Centre
  • Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation