By Benson Rioba
HOMA BAY, Kenya, Nov 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the scorching sun, Alphonce Abok keeps an eye on his fields of watermelons growing near the banks of the Sondu River, one of the major channels feeding into Lake Victoria.
"I hope with enough water this time around I will harvest my watermelons," said the farmer from western Kenya. Not so long ago, he said, his efforts failed as he couldn't get enough water to the crop.
In July, however, he purchased a solar-powered irrigation pump that he now hopes will give him a much more reliable harvest.
The equipment, from Futurepump, which imports irrigation kits from India, draws energy from an 80-watt solar panel mounted on a metal frame. The solar power then drives a motor that pulls water from a river, well or storage tank.
Abok used to use a diesel irrigation pump that cost nearly $10 a day in fuel to run, and often drained his budget, as well as being noisy and smoky, he said.
His new $637 pump required a $414 down payment, with $25 a month repayments until it is paid off.
The price tag can make the pumps hard to afford for many small farmers, but Futurepump, based in Kisumu, has set up loan programmes with banks and micro-finance institutions to help buyers acquire the equipment, said Charles Ahenda-Bengo, the company's general manager.
The firm also hopes to eventually begin manufacturing the solar irrigation kits locally, to help cut costs, Ahenda-Bengo said.
CHEAPER THAN LOSSES
The solar pump was designed specifically for small-scale farmers who can't afford the irrigation technology used by large farmers, but who increasingly need to irrigate their crops as rainfall becomes more irregular, he said.
So far, the company has sold 200 pumps in Kenya. Another 350 have been sold in other East African countries, Ahenda-Bengo said.
Rachael Opiyo, another farmer who bought one of the solar pumps with her savings this year, fears the high up-front cost may keep many farmers from investing in the technology.
But Ahenda-Bengo said the kit, which is guaranteed for five years, is less expensive if considered over its potential lifespan - and cheaper than losing crops repeatedly.
Joshua Okundi, another farmer who has bought a solar pump, said the device is saving time as well as cash, as the diesel pump engine levels don't need to be topped up.
"With the solar irrigation pump my work is easier since I don't have to monitor it every time. I just place the kit in the farm and leave it to continue pumping water," he said.
GOVERNMENT IRRIGATION PUSH
Patrick Nduati, the principal secretary for irrigation in Kenya's Ministry of Water, said the government is not charging value-added tax on such solar kits, and that the country's draft National Irrigation Policy proposes offering more incentives to farmers to buy such devices, including lower import taxes.
Irrigation has the potential to boost and protect production on many small farms, Nduati said. Already the country has about 3,600 smallholder irrigation projects covering 168,000 acres, or about 42 percent of the country's total irrigated area.
But while solar pumps are a welcome addition in Kenya, Nduati said, they have not always worked in conditions where the sun doesn't shine. Farmers like Abok and Okundi believe adding a rechargeable battery to the kit could help solve the problem.
But Ahenda-Bengo said adding more features would defeat the solar kit's purpose by making it harder to transport and use. The current relatively simple kit, he said, is easy for farmers to repair themselves.
Nduati said the government plans to boost agricultural production in Kenya, despite problems with drought, by placing 100,000 additional acres of land under irrigation each year through the year 2030.
That would be managed, in part, by boosting spending on irrigation to around 2 percent of the national budget, and finding new water sources by harvesting rainwater and re-using waste water, he said.
(Reporting by Benson Rioba; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)