Solar Market Garden (SMG)

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Solar Market Garden (SMG)

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

SELF pioneered the combination of solar water pumping and drip irrigation to create the Solar Market Garden. This two-village project demonstrates a reliable, economical and sustainable means of irrigation, enabling women farmers to grow crops during the annual six-month dry season for significant improvements in family income and nutrition. The scale-up will expand the project to 44 villages.

About You
Solar Electric Light Fund
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name



, DC

Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?


Organization Name

Solar Electric Light Fund

Organization Phone


Organization Address

1612 K St, NW, Suite 402, Washington, DC 20006

Organization Country

, DC

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

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Your idea
Country your work focuses on

, BO

What makes your idea unique?

While both solar pumping and micro-drip irrigation schemes have had wide-spread use, they have seldom been used together in an effective way, and with well-documented results. By optimizing this combination, SELF is developing a model that can be replicated in many parts of Benin, the rest of Africa and the world. In this project we will establish best practices for combining these technologies and a “how-to” format and dissemination plan so SMGs can help the millions of people that are limited in growing food by the absence of water. A significant part of the model will be developing the financial and organizational means of sustaining the project.

Key technical parameters:
• maximum amount of land irrigated using solar pumps and micro-drip
• optimum water application rates given specific soil conditions and evapo-transpiration rates
• most robust and reliable drip tubes and emitters
• optimum water storage and delivery systems
• optimum fertilizer delivery
• maintenance and upkeep requirements
• average working life of irrigation components under Kalalé conditions

Economic variables:
• maximum number of families served by a single pump and irrigation system
• determining full costs of production
• average annual crop yields per field and market value
• local market pricing vs. larger distant markets
• ability/willingness of farmers to pay for micro-drip systems and water pumping costs

Community concerns:
• determining accepted means of organizing growers for sharing water supply, collecting fees, maintaining systems and forming marketing associations
• devising supply chain for irrigation supplies and pumps

Do you have a patent for this idea?

Tell us about the social impact of your innovation. Please include both numbers and stories as evidence of this impact

Women participating in the SMG pilot have reported they spend up to 50% less time working on their current plots than they had hand-watering their previous plots (10-30 times smaller). Additionally, they spend the time in the gardens engaged in more income generating activities – including seed replication for sale to other farmers – than simply hauling water as before.

Stanford published their findings February 2, 2010 ( In summary, researchers concluded the SMG “significantly augments both household income and nutritional intake:”

• Each SMG supplied an average of 1.9 tons of produce/month.
• Other agricultural production was not displaced.
• 18% of the produce grown was kept for home consumption; the balance was sold at market and generated income.
• Vegetable intake across all villages increased during the rainy season by approximately one serving per day (150 grams per person); by comparison, project beneficiaries gained the equivalent of 3-5 servings per day (500-750 grams per person), mostly during the dry season.
• Project beneficiaries’ daily standard of living increased by $0.69 relative to non-beneficiaries.
• Use of income earned “significantly” increased the purchase of staples, pulses, and protein during the dry season and oil during the rainy season.

After the first week of selling their produce in the Kalale market, Yarou Ganni made Jennifer Burney, a project manager, stay late into the afternoon so she could prepare her food. Ganni said, "For so many months, you have been coming here, and I never had money to buy you any pounded yam to thank you. Now, after what we have sold, I can finally buy you pounded yams. So sit down. You're not going anywhere!"

The training services alone have helped bolster the women’s skills, opportunities and confidence. 100 women in three collectives have received training on soil preparation, nursery formation, irrigation, pest control, seed replication, organization management, and marketing. Furthermore, technicians were trained to install and maintain the solar panels.

Another key result has been the enthusiasm of the women for the project and their thinking about solar power for microenterprises and the like. They are thinking, optimistically, about their future.

Problem: Describe the primary problem(s) that your innovation is addressing

The vast majority of poor, rural women derive their livelihood from subsistence farming. Unfortunately, this group mostly coincides with the 1.7 billion people who live “off the grid” with no access to electricity. Their poverty is defined in large measure by poor nutrition and related health problems, because productive agriculture requires water delivered reliably to the fields – a serious challenge in areas with lengthy dry seasons, such as the Sahel. Hauled water is entirely inadequate, though often it is the only means available. Furthermore, the role of carrying water traditionally falls upon the women, depriving them of time for other valuable activities, including income generation.

Irrigation solutions need both the energy to pump water and the means to conserve water. Rural women farmers, however are rarely connected to the power grid, and traditional irrigation systems use far more water than actually reaches the crop plants. Diesel generators cannot alleviate this form of energy poverty; they are expensive to operate, polluting, and break down frequently enough to cause crops to whither and fail. An alternative energy source is needed, which solar power provides, while drip irrigation provides the water conservation.

Lack of access to capital, however, impedes the ability of women farmers to experiment with and implement successful new technologies. This project seeded the process and proved the Solar Market Garden to be a viable, economical, sustainable and replicable solution.

Actions: Describe the steps that you are taking to make your innovation a success. What might prevent that success?

The women’s farming collectives have taken ownership of this project from the beginning. Maintenance and supervision are entirely local, with support from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and SELF technicians. SELF focused efforts on local capacity-building: administration, bookkeeping, and communication have improved and all parties are comfortable with project expansion. Our local project team is now prepared to train the additional staff needed to expand to more villages.

SELF has partnered with Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment ( to monitor and evaluate the impacts of this project. Two primary measures for assessment are: 1) increases in vegetable consumption and evidence of the health benefits that result, and 2) increases in income as a result of food sales. These enable SELF to: (a) assess the impact of the pilot phase, (b) establish decision criteria and recommendations for scaling the project to other villages, and (c) refine the research design for the complete scale-up phase of the project. Stanford’s effort has included initial household surveys in the two pilot villages and two "comparison" villages in November 2007, the collection of garden data (yields, sales, inputs), local market monitoring, and follow-up surveys in November 2008.

Natural disaster, political instability or inter-village rivalry could prevent the successful expansion of this project. SELF cannot control the first two, but we have made a public commitment to bring this technology to all 44 villages in the district; so far, the others are patiently waiting.

Results: Describe the expected results of these actions over the next three years. Please address each year separately, if possible

The next phases of the project will bring SMGs to six additional villages in 2010, and provide solar electricity for other critical resources—such as drinking water wells—in the first two pilot villages. We expect to install SMGs in 12 villages in 2011, and in another 18 villages in 2012, subject to funding. We hope to be well on our way to completing the SMGs in all 44 villages in Kalalé by three years from now. Ultimately, all 44 villages will have Solar Market Gardens and solar-powered electricity. Critical to all phases of the project are local training and on-going support.

The long-term goal for the program, particularly its SMG component, is to provide a development model for much of West Africa, where conditions are similar to northern Benin. Additionally, the model can be adapted for use throughout the developing world.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your innovation seek to have an impact on public policy?


If your innovation seeks to impact public policy, how?

Upon the SMG model’s validation, which we expect to occur in this next phase of the project, the government of Benin and larger international and multi-national development funding agencies will be urged to adopt solar irrigation as a primary tool in their development agriculture, equitable opportunities, technology incentives and capital access policies. We hope that the SMG will be adopted throughout sub-Saharan Africa and across rural, non-electrified regions of the developing world.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with businesses?


Does your organization have a non monetary partnerships with government?


Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation

Much as the project already relies on partners (e.g., w/ ADESCKA as local partner and ICRISAT as the irrigation partner), we anticipate its scaling up to benefit from the involvement of additional and likely larger partners (e.g., local and national governments, and UN development agencies). SELF has briefed the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and both organizations have expressed interest in partnering with SELF to replicate this model in other parts of Africa. Companies providing the equipment used also will be encouraged to join in supporting this project, at least in these initial phases, with donated or discounted equipment. SELF can remain the solar partner and project leader, but complete rollout of the project to all 44 villages – to say nothing of the model’s replication throughout the developing world – will not occur without the consequential involvement of institutional and/or public funders and funders.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

During the project’s pilot phase, SELF received seed funding from a World Bank development marketplace grant of $100,000. SELF received additional financial support from individuals, family foundations, and small private foundations (e.g., with gifts or grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000). We expect to replicate this model during the validation phase and gain additional, more significant support from sources (e.g., a $37,500 grant has been received), including from entities able to provide funding in the six-figure range. As the validation phase progresses, we expect agencies, governments, and large institutional funders to underwrite some of the remaining installations.

The overall financial objectives of this project are that solar/micro-irrigation systems pay for themselves over time and that they be self-sustaining. Stanford University's recent evaluation found the SMG to have a 2.3 year payback ( We expect that scale up will ultimately occur through the use of traditional small-scale finance as the women’s farming collectives gain access to capital markets. The SMG application is designed to be a hand-up, not a hand-out. With a proven model, hard assets, short payback period and low upfront capital requirements, the installations should meet the requirements for community bank financing with fair market interest rates.

Additionally, cost-savings should be realized as we install more systems at the same time (realizing economies of scale) and the price of the equipment used continues to drop. Similarly, training expenses can be reduced as sessions are consolidated among villages and/or instructors are able to teach more sessions on a given trip.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

In 2005, SELF Executive Director Robert Freling was contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé who had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany. Dr. Setamou, now a Professor at Texas A&M University, had just returned from a home visit to Benin, where he had participated in a meeting of Kalalé’s district council to explore alternative options for electrifying Kalalé’s villages since the national grid was not likely to reach this remote part of Benin anytime soon. Intuiting that solar represented a way forward for his people, Mamoudou turned to SELF for help. Over the next few months, a plan was assembled, through the good offices of the local group ADESCA, to generate solar electricity for a wide range of end-uses—including schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, street lighting, and wireless Internet access—in each of the 44 villages that comprise Kalalé District. In terms of priority, however, an on-the-ground needs assessment revealed that the first concern among the women and their families was food security: to find a way to overcome the endemic lack of water and agricultural produce that condemns the people of Kalalé to an endless cycle of poverty and malnutrition, especially during the 6-month dry season.

Tell us about the person—the social innovator—behind this idea.

Robert Freling has been Executive Director of SELF since 1997. During his stewardship, SELF has completed solar energy projects in more than 15 countries, making SELF the leader among non-governmental organizations in realizing practical and cost-effective alternative energy solutions for rural villagers.

A native of Dallas,Texas. Mr. Freling collaborated with SELF as a Chinese translator and interpreter to coordinate a 1000-house solar electrification project in rural Gansu, China in 1995. He was soon appointed SELF's Director of International Programs. In that role, he facilitated negotiations between the U.S. Department of Energy and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture to expand the Gansu Province solar electrification project.

Fluent in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Indonesian, Mr. Freling holds a B.A. in Russian Studies from Yale University, and an M.A. in Communications Management from the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Freling was the recipient of the 2008 King Hussein Leadership Prize, which was presented by Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan at the Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Awards.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Friend or family member

If through another source, please provide the information
Does your project address any of the following barriers to women’s technology access and use?

Women’s time poverty, Social norms, Economic or institutional constraints.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how.

Women participating in the Solar Market Garden pilot have already reported in interviews that they spend up to 50% less time working on their current plots than they had hand-watering their previous plots (which were 10-30 times smaller). Additionally, they report that they spend the time in the gardens engaged in more income generating activities – including seed replication for sale to other farmers – than simply hauling water as they had before.

100 women in the 3 farming collectives have received training on soil preparation, nursery formation, irrigation, pest control, seed replication, organization management, and marketing. These trainings have been conducted every 6-8 weeks by ICRISAT. In addition, women were also trained to install and maintain solar panels and drip irrigation systems.

This project provided the access to capital the women needed to experiment with and implement the use of solar power and drip irrigation for the women’s farming collectives. Stanford’s recent assessment determined the SMGs have a 2.3 year payback period, proving them to be a viable, economical, sustainable and replicable solution.

Does your project involve women in one or more of the following stages of the technology lifecycle? Identification of the problem the technology will solve:

Market research, Technology introduction, Technology training, Creation and maintenance of market linkages for women's economic outputs, Assessment and evaluation.

If you checked any of the boxes above, please explain how you will ensure women’s involvement in each relevant phase of the technology lifecycle.

Most important, the women's farming collectives of Bessassi and Dunkassa have "owned" this project from the beginning. The project was conceived for women, designed by women, led by women, implemented by women, and operated and maintained by women. It has also been monitored and evaluated by women. Women conducted the market research; introduced the technology to the women's farming collectives; and trained the women in the installation, operation, maintenance and repair of the Solar Market Gardens. The women's collectives have been active in establishing the market linkages for their excess produce and have also played an active role in the assessment and evaluation.

If women are a focus of your project, how did this focus evolve?

The project focused on women from its conception..

Which type of women will your project reach directly?

Rural, Low income.

In what ways does your project team/leadership involve women?

It is led by a woman/women., The core project team includes women., The core project team includes women from developing countries..

Has your organization formed any new partnerships in response to this challenge? If so, with what type/s of organization/s?

Multilateral/bilateral, Non-profit/NGO/community-based organization, Government, Women's organization.

Has your project leadership had prior experience with the following?

Working with women, Working with technologies, Working to increase women's economic empowerment through technology, Working on innovation.