Farming life is a contrast. Under the scorching mid-morning sun, Yahaya Muteguya of Bufutuula village, Namunsale Parish, Iganga District, continuously wipes away the sweat as he irrigates his tomatoes. From what seems a bumper harvest, the ripening tomatoes have turned the garden red. The garden measures about one acre.
It is at the extreme end of the garden, where Muteguya is operating a solar-powered irrigation pump, which is placed near a water pond. Life seems easier!
Placed on top of the blue pump, is a solar panel, which generates the power that runs the pump. He says the manually dug deep pond provides water throughout the year.
From the four sprinkler nozzles spread out in the garden, water splashes out to irrigate Muteguya’s tomato garden.
Surprisingly, nearby, his healthy vegetable garden, is a withering potato garden decimated by the long drought. The wasted potato garden belongs to his neighbour.
“If you compare crops that belong to other farmers, my vegetables look healthy because I irrigate then using a solar irrigation pump,” the 70-year-old Muteguya boasts.
Muteguya says he has been growing vegetables for more than 10 years but he too used to be a slave to the vagaries of the weather as he would only grow during the rainy season.
“Whenever rains did not come, I would incur heavy losses,” he says.
He recalls a devastating loss in 2015 when his tomato garden was lost because of a lengthy dry spell.
He explains that since he was growing vegetables only during rainy seasons, his produce was fetching low prices because the market would be flooded at harvest time.
However, in 2017, during a radio talk show, Muteguya learnt of how to use solar powered-irrigation pumps.
Muteguya says he soon found out that solar pumps were an ideal solution to farmers in dry areas.
Although Iganga is one of the wet areas in Uganda that receive about 1300mm of rainfall per annum, the rains have dwindled recently accompanied by longer dry spells.
Solar powered pumps, he says, guarantee a steady supply of power without any negative environmental impacts. Since he had experienced losses before, he visited vendors in Iganga Town, who supplied him with the equipment.
Solar pumps turn out to be a viable long term investment even though the initial cost is comparably high.
Agricultural Business Initiative (aBi) is enabling farmers to make solar pumps available by dealing with solar vendors, Solar Now, in a three-year partnership.
aBi has developed with Solar Now, a solution that is quite efficient for farmers with an aim of increasing farm productivity and improve living conditions.
Solar Now trains farmers on proper use and maintenance of equipment before it is supplied.
The complete set of the pump costs Shs2.65m but Muteguya made a down payment of Shs360,000. He then paid in instalments of Shs115,000 for 24 months.
Mr Herbert Mugoya, the Solar Now Iganga branch client service officer, says the mode allows farmers to produce all year round, even in dry season and thus to increase their income and strengthen their position in the local market with affordable instalments.
To date, more than 30 farmers and agribusinesses have acquired the solar products through the arrangement.
Aside from Iganga, there is also an increasing interest in solar irrigation systems in Uganda. As a result, the impact, both in terms of increasing rural incomes and reducing costs while increasing efficiencies, has been registered. For instance, a total of 2,205 solar systems have been generated along the agriculture value chain.
The principle of the solar pumps irrigation method is quite simple.
The photovoltaic array converts the solar energy into electricity, which is used for running the motor pump set. The pumping system draws water from the open well, bore well, pond etc. The water pumping system can be used to irrigate land, when the water is to be pumped from a depth of well or a pond.
The system enables the farmer to grow more crops with less water, turning it into a highly efficient irrigation method.
Muteguya has grown a wide market with considerable profit margins.
He sells his produce to market traders from Iganga Town and Nairobi, Kenya. These, he says, buy from him from the garden, which helps him eliminate transport costs.
In a year, he earns about Shs60m from his produce, which he uses to pay for his children and grand children’s education.
He says with the benefits he is getting, a number of farmers in his community are gradually learning from him and many plan to also acquire the solar irrigation pumps.
This, he hopes will increase agricultural productivity among community members and increase household incomes.
Muteguya says his biggest challenge is the climate and weather changes. He specifically points at high humidity which causes tomato blight.
Tomato blight is caused by fungus-like organisms that spread through potato and tomato foliage, particularly during wet weather. Blight spreads quickly, causing leaves to discolour, rot and collapse.
But Muteguya has turned to blight resistant plants, crop rotation, proper spacing between his plants and proper mulching to prevent plant losses.
He also complains of fake pesticides on the market, which he says when used don’t kill the pests leading to losses.
Although, his earnings are high during dry periods, the rain season offsets surplus harvests, killing the market for vegetables.
Despite these challenges, Muteguya says it was a wise decision to resort to irrigation.
Despite previous efforts by the Government of Uganda to promote irrigation, less than 1 per cent of agricultural households practice irrigation in Uganda (UBOS 2010).
The area equipped for irrigation is less than 3 per cent of the total potential irrigable area in Uganda estimated at 567,000 hectares. Therefore, there is still an opportunity to exploit the irrigation potential, which would ensure that Uganda is not only food secure but also an exporter of agricultural products.