Since 2013, Postcode Lottery Green Challenge nominee SunCulture from Kenya has been on a mission to help smallholder farmers in Africa improve crop yields and quality. They are driven to constantly innovate and improve their technology to make solar powered irrigation solutions affordable for the millions of farmers on the continent. We spoke to Samir Ibrahim, Founder & CEO of SunCulture.

What is SunCulture about?SunCulture portret“Our goal is to figure out how to make smallholder farmer households wealthier. There are about 500 million smallholder famers in the world and many of these families make under a thousand dollars per acre per year. We started the business because these numbers were pretty upsetting to us. The group of people that actually feeds most of the developed world can’t afford high value fresh fruits and vegetables for themselves. In order to make more money they have to irrigate their land and irrigation costs are too high.

We decided to build a solution that combines the cost effectiveness of solar powered water pumping with the efficiency of micro irrigation. It reduces the costs of pumping water because it uses the power of the sun and through micro irrigation it allocates water more efficiently, which in turn increases the yield of crops.”

Why did you choose to come to Kenya?
“Two-thirds of the population in Africa are smallholder famers, but the continent has 60% of the world’s unused farmable land and the yields of farmers in Africa are about half of farmers everywhere else. Africa only contributes 15% of global agriculture output. We knew our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge were here: a lot of farmers, a lot of land, and very little output. We wanted to figure out why. We wanted to go there and ask the farmers what their needs were. And realized Kenya is the gateway to East Africa.”

Was the drip irrigation kit an instant success?
“Not at all! Less than 6% of African farmers had ever irrigated. We were trying to sell a product without any support service around it. So we added installation, training, ongoing agronomy support, and after sales support.

We were the first company on the continent to commercialize this solution. However, most farmers don’t have the upfront cash available to buy high quality products and services. So there needs to be a financing solution to our farmers to invest in these assets. We tried to work with banks, but they deemed the risk too high to lend to farmers. Two-thirds of the African workforce is in agriculture but less than 1% of all outstanding bank loans go this sector.

We have partnered with the Shell Foundation and are piloting an asset-financing program that we call “Pay-As-You-Grow”. We allow farmers to pay us in a way that matches their cash flows: during the growing season they pay us a little bit of money, and wen they harvest they pay us more money. You can’t offer a product, information or a financing solution in isolation of each other. There is no ecosystem for the farmers to tap into. It’s a holistic end-to-end solution that allows farming households to become better off.”

How is SunCulture different from other similar systems?
“Drip irrigation and solar water pumping have been in Africa since the 1960s. But the products that have been in the market were never designed for smallholder farmers. It seems like none of the existing companies have sat with farmers and asked what their needs are. Products were not designed to actually fit the needs of these farms. On top of that, no other irrigation companies bundle services and financing. We have become a one-stop-shop for farmers.”

What are the next steps for SunCulture?
“Our goal is to expand to as many countries as we can as quickly as possible. At the moment we are very focused on making our product exportable. Our challenge is to increase access to products, knowledge and finance. We are working hard to put what we have into a package.”