Looking Across the Energy AG-Nexus: Efficiency for Agtech Campaign in Context

The campaign demonstrated the significant impact of affordable, energy-efficient agricultural equipment on enhancing global food security, building climate resilience and improving livelihoods. Learn more

Back in 2018, upon launching its flagship Low-Energy Inclusive Appliances (LEIA) programme, Efficiency for Access developed its first communications campaign to promote greater awareness of clean, energy-efficient productive use technologies in the agricultural sector. This campaign was called Efficiency for AgTech.

In 2022, as we celebrate the five-year anniversary of LEIA, we return to this topic to reflect on how our activities, as well as the energy-ag nexus as a whole, has evolved and grown more complex over the years.

This blog series for the Efficiency for AgTech campaign, entitled “Voices in Ag Tech”, has highlighted the people and organisations whose work has helped increase awareness of solar-powered agricultural technologies, in ways that have spurred technology breakthroughs, promoted development along the market value chain, diversified financing options and so much more, in the quest to expand clean energy access. This is a final reflection on this topic under the campaign.

Revisiting the “Efficiency for AgTech” concept

This second Efficiency for AgTech campaign — which launched on 18 January 2022 and runs until Earth Day on 22 April — demonstrated the significant impact of affordable, energy-efficient agricultural equipment on enhancing global food security, building climate resilience and improving livelihoods.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that by 2040, current food production will need to increase by 70% to satisfy the growing global population. Yet climate change and existing inefficient food production and storage processes threaten to exacerbate this food insecurity, taking us far off track from reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on alleviating hunger (SDG1) and poverty (SDG2) by 2030.

However, by focusing on SDG7 — the promotion of clean, affordable energy for all — we can put ourselves back on an achievable timeline. In particular, solar-powered technologies that maximise the efficiency of harvesting, processing, storing and distributing food can mitigate the very worst effects of climate change, while simultaneously improving the livelihoods of those who are most vulnerable to its impacts.

Because solar-powered agricultural appliances are key to addressing these existing challenges, Efficiency for Access chose to return to this critical topic on the energy-ag nexus for our first communications campaign of 2022. As food systems and livelihoods are disrupted more and more as a result of climate change, our work has continued to recognise the potential of energy-efficient, affordable agricultural technologies as powerful solutions to these global crises.

How far we’ve come

Five years ago, we could not have predicted the growth we’ve seen in the intersection of clean energy and agriculture. The market for solar-powered appliances overall has developed rapidly over the past few years, and many surprising trends and technologies have emerged as examples of the sector’s capacity to innovate and adapt. Our Solar Appliance Technology Briefs Synthesis Report provides a comprehensive look back at this development. The rapid growth of the clean energy sector has paralleled the expansion of the energy-ag space.

Back [then], the conversation was very much centred around whether powering agricultural equipment with off-grid solar systems was even viable, says Yasemin Erboy Ruff, Senior Manager at CLASP, and there were only a handful of exemplary companies — and technologies — we could point to in the energy access sector.

Since the inception of Efficiency for Access in 2018, we’ve seen technology and business innovations blossom across the clean energy sector. While the impacts of this growth are not always quantifiable, metric analyses conducted by our partners like 60 Decibels reveal significant influence on the ground, at the consumer level.

In a report on the Uses and Benefits of Solar Water Pumps — with data stemming from our Global LEAP Awards Solar Water Pump Competition — 60 Decibels analysis found that 81% of consumers felt their livelihoods had improved since purchasing a solar water pump. To frame this satisfaction, prior to accessing a solar water pump, customers spent USD $6.62 per week on fuel and hired labour to help with pumping; that expenditure dropped to USD $0.57 after having access to a solar water pump.

While solar water pumps, like many other solar-powered agricultural appliances, still remain out of reach for many target consumers, the fact that they are attaining market viability is an encouraging sign. It’s evidence that stakeholders from across the energy and agriculture sectors are beginning to come into dialogue together around promoting these technology innovations.

Makena Ireri, Manager at CLASP, noted that, we are no longer just thinking about energy access from a supply/lighting/solar home system point of view. The discussion on productive use renewable energy and agriculture is now integrated into high-level conversations on energy access and funding.

Our contributions to the sector

At the outset, we identified a need to support the private sector and research institutions to drive technology and business model innovation in the off-grid appliances sector. The Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund was established in 2018 to address this need and has since supported 37 R&D projects with funding from UK aid and IKEA Foundation.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the Fund has been a catalyst for early-stage companies developing new productive use innovations in the agricultural value chain. For example, the team has supported Agsol in developing a solar-powered mill prototype that can process cereals such as maize. The Fund has further supported Agsol to improve the efficiency for its mill by 32%, while simultaneously halving its cost. “It is critical that there is a clear pathway to commercialisation for companies on their innovation journey, as all too often organisations are scrambling around looking for their next source of funding. This can waste a lot of time and effort and prevent companies from focusing on growth and product development,” says Chris Beland, Senior Project Manager, R&D at Energy Saving Trust, and Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund lead.

We have also seen the key role enabling technologies can play for productive use appliances in agricultural value chains. In India, the R&D Fund supported the development of remote monitoring capabilities for milk chillers that use thermal storage. As a result, they have been able to explore and test new business models, reaching customers that now have access to new markets and improving the overall milk quality for local dairy processors.

Towards reducing post-harvest losses and increasing food system sustainability in areas that lack reliable connection to the grid, Efficiency for Access, through the Global LEAP Off-Grid Cold Chain Challenge (OGCCC), is driving the innovative use of sustainable energy to power cold-storage technology. The Challenge is partnering with 14 companies — mostly local suppliers/ manufacturers of solar-powered walk-in cold room units in Kenya, Nigeria, and India — to- to support product deployment and development of linkages with local business and market actors. They work towards delivering cooling solutions for small holder farmers in the first mile in the agricultural value chains specifically Fresh, Fruits & Vegetables (FFV), Dairy and Meat Value chains. In addition, the cold room products’ real-life application technical performance will be assessed together with the collection of data on end-user experience feedback and business operations and approaches.

These efforts build towards generating product and market intelligence for cold room systems in off and weak-grid settings, which is largely missing and makes it difficult for new players interested in the market to enter to assist investors to conduct proper assessments to weigh investments in productive use companies. Information collected will also serve a critical foundational role in developing a technical performance benchmark for walk-in cold room systems in the build-up towards creating quality standards. This will help protect end users by ensuring they receive quality services from the walk-in cold room solutions they are investing in, in terms of energy efficiency, appropriateness for use, and cost-effectiveness.

The road ahead

One of the seismic shifts in the agricultural space has been an increasing move away from conventional agriculture to more traditionally-rooted agricultural practices such as agroforestry and farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) — a shift in which solar technologies can offer significant support.

Richa Goyal, Senior Insight Manager at Energy Saving Trust, leads LEIA’s research on how solar technologies can facilitate this move toward regenerative agriculture.

Goyal remarks that, as energy access stakeholders, it is important for us to contribute toward these goals by investigating the role those solar technologies can play in this space. These efforts may involve developing commercial value chains of crop species that are naturally adapted to dryland climates. Agro-processing machinery like mills, oil extractors, solar dehydrators or de-bittering machines may all contribute to this evolution of the energy-ag nexus.

However, one of the biggest barriers to this full integration of clean energy appliances in the agricultural space is the still existent siloing of industry players.

There needs to be more open dialogue and collaborations between the energy and agricultural sectors, Erboy Ruff remarks, for these appliances to significantly move up the market development curve and become more available, and affordable, to consumers and communities.

Looking back at the road from which we’ve come, however, we have reason to hope that despite the challenges, this sector has the talent, the creativity and the drive to forge ahead, not only envisioning, but actively creating, a world in which everyone has access to affordable and sustainable energy.