By Mark Kawalya
Solar power in Africa is predominantly used for power generation purposes since most countries on the continent have an abundance of sunshine. However, in Kenya, a new method of using solar power where crops are grown under the panels is taking shape. Under the technique known as Agrivoltaics, solar energy is harvested where it is used to generate energy whilst also being used as shade for crops. This helps the soil with moisture retention and boosts crop growth and yields.
The technique has had successful trials in Kenya and the process has now been rolled out in open fields. Initially, a research collaboration that took one year between World Agroforestry, the University of Sheffield and Latia Agriprenuership Institute, which is based in Kajiado, showed positive results. The tests were carried out in Kajiado, a semi-arid area that takes about a 90-minute drive from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Researchers on the project pointed out that cabbage grown under the solar panels grew to a size that was a third bigger than cabbages planted in controlled plots that were given the same amounts of fertilizer and water. Similar results were noticed with other crops such as lettuce and maize, which grew taller and healthier.
An agronomist at the Latia Agriprenuership Institute, Judy Wairiumu lauded the experiment’s findings. “We wanted to see how crops would perform if grown under these panels,” said Wairimu. “Doubling up the output of the same patch of earth to generate power and cultivate food can go a long way towards helping people with limited land resources.”
Her views were reinforced by Dr. Richard Randle-Boggis of the University of Sheffield. He said the project will be used as a benchmark for similar agrivoltaic based farming in East Africa.
“We needed to build a test system to see if this technology will be suitable for the region,” Randle-Boggis said reiterating that, unlike conventional solar mini-grid systems, agrivoltaics have the additional benefits of improving food and water security, while strengthening people’s resilience against the climate crisis, as well as providing low-carbon electricity.
The panels are set up three meters off the ground, which provides enough room for farmers to work underneath. For larger farms, researchers note that the panels can be set up in an elevated configuration where larger machinery may be deployed. Agrivoltaic farming is proving to be a feasible alternative in Kenyan areas that are not suitable for horticulture.