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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

Solar irrigation solutions for smallholder farmers in India

Graduate Dr Clementine Chambon launches solar irrigation social enterprise campaign in India to empower rural communities.

Graduate Dr Clementine Chambon has just launched a crowdfunding campaign for her social enterprise, Oorja, to support a solar pumping project in Assam, India, to reach 120 smallholder farmers and their families. Their aim is to increase access to affordable solar irrigation technologies and promote sustainable agriculture in a community of around 1,000 people.

Dr Chambon graduated from our department in Chemical Engineering with triple First Class Honours and then went to Imperial College in 2013 to do her PhD in bio-energy. She also worked as a renewable energy consultant and founded Oorja two years ago. Oorja is a project developer of off-grid solar energy systems that power livelihood applications in rural India.

Ten million diesel-powered pumps are used across India for irrigation. These pumps are operationally very expensive due to the high costs of diesel fuel and maintenance. Lack of affordable water for irrigation limits agricultural yields and many farmers earn very little or even incur losses. This is a major factor in India’s current agrarian crisis, pushing many farmers to migrate to overpopulated cities. Diesel pumps are also highly polluting, releasing clouds of black carbon particles and greenhouse gases. Irrigation accounts for 5% of India’s diesel consumption, and the sector is ripe for decarbonisation.

Dr Chambon said: "I first became aware of these challenges while conducting surveys in India’s villages during my PhD, where we studied the potential for converting agricultural residues to biofuels and electricity. Seasoned social entrepreneur Amit Saraogi and I met with hundreds of farmers in northern India, who told us of their dire need for cheaper irrigation solutions. We realised that the agriculture–energy nexus is critical, as agriculture underpins the livelihoods of around 50% of India’s population. Yet the sector is starved of affordable, efficient energy sources that could help pull millions out of poverty.

"This led us to found Oorja, a social enterprise leveraging clean energy solutions to tackle poverty and climate change in rural India. Designing cost-effective solutions to replace diesel pumping is not straightforward. 86% of India’s farming population have small landholding less than one hectare and have low incomes of £1-4 per day. This prevents them from investing in yield-enhancing technologies such as solar pumps, despite government subsidy. Use of electric pumps is not feasible in much of northern and eastern India, as power transformers needed to connect to the grid are prohibitively costly and supply is erratic and poor quality. For lack of a viable alternative, millions of farmers continue to rely on diesel pumps, contributing to persistent poverty and pollution."

Solar-powered irrigation pumps are cost-effective on a lifecycle cost basis, as they are virtually free to run once installed. To overcome the upfront cost barrier of solar pumps, Oorja developed a disruptive community-based solution. They design, install and operate PAYG Community Solar Pumps targeted at smallholder farmers in northern and northeast India. Oorja invests in large solar pumps of 3–5 HP, which can provide water for 15-20 farmers with adjacent land. Oorja sells water as a service, branded as “Oonnati”, meaning “progress” in Hindi. Water consumption is metered and sold on a pay-per-use basis at tariffs 20% cheaper than diesel-powered irrigation. Any farmer with land near the pump can access Oonnati services without any upfront cost.

By providing year-round access to affordable irrigation, farmers can boost crop yields by up to 50% and grow water-intensive crops such as vegetables, herbs and spices. These have high market value and can be sold at a large profit, so farmers can potentially double their incomes.

"Oorja has already run three successful Community Solar Pumping pilot projects in Uttar Pradesh"says Dr Chambon. "Demand for water is high and the 60 farmers reached have begun sowing peppermint and maize. We now plan to replicate the scheme in Assam, a groundwater-rich state where we have partnered with local NGO SeSTA that already works with smallholder farmers".

Oorja is crowdfunding to raise £25,000 to cover the costs of installing six community solar pumps in Assam. These will benefit 120 smallholder farmers in a community of 1,000 people. This project is a critical milestone in Oorja's mission to build inclusive economies by keeping the poor, under-served and marginalised at the forefront. The Oorja team would be very grateful for help from CEB members in spreading the news and supporting the campaign on Indiegogo

Follow Dr Chambon and her work on @Oorjasolutions and  @c_chambon


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