The author is a freelance journalist with HarvestPlus in Brazil

The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and HarvestPlus are deploying solar-powered irrigation kits in a bid to ensure production security for farmers in semi-arid Piauí state. Embrapa and HarvestPlus promote biofortified crops in the state, but farmers and their families can only benefit from these nutritious crops if they are able to grow, eat, and market them. Unfortunately, many smallholder farmers in the state either have no access to, or cannot afford, electrically powered water pumps. The decision by Embrapa and HarvestPlus to invest in solar-powered pumps is in response to the demand for affordable, quality irrigation by poor communities in Piauí.

The first installed solar irrigation kit is delivering 5,000 liters of water per hour, enough to irrigate up to eight times the area initially under cultivation. Nineteen-year-old Henrique Lima was the first recipient of the kit, which now allows him and his family to cultivate a range of biofortified crops, including maize, sweet potatoes, beans, and cassava. With their crop production secured, Henrique and his family are reaping not only the nutritional benefits of the biofortified crops, but their marketability, too.

"I used to sell conventional cowpea beans at five reals per kilogram,” says Henrique. “But now, demand for the iron- and zinc-rich biofortified variety is so high that I am able to sell it at 11 reals per kilogram. I have expanded my biofortified crop production area to around 6,000 square meters. I am very grateful for biofortification."

In March 2017, the second solar-based unit was installed in the city of Oeiras under the ownership of 21-year-old Valdileia de Moura Silva. Valdileia is a woman farmer in an environment still dominated by men. She considers the new irrigation kit empowering.

"It is securing my ability to produce quantity and quality, allowing me to achieve my financial independence,” she says. “And it is doing all this in an environmentally friendly way, thanks to its clean energy.”

Marcos Jacob de Almeida is an analyst with Embrapa Mid-North and one of the main coordinators of biofortification in the Northeast region of Brazil. He explains how recipients of the kits are chosen.

"In this beginning phase, we are prioritizing younger farmers,” he says. “The goal is to encourage these farmers to stay and be productive on the farm, not to migrate to urban centers where they are likely to end up in low-paying employment. We work with agricultural schools, which help us to identify the best suited students, those who show the greatest interest, are regularly engaged in agricultural production, and demonstrate a commitment to develop their rural area."

The third kit is already scheduled to be installed in the community of Canadá, located in Oeiras-PI. Embrapa researcher and regional manager for HarvestPlus in Latin America and the Caribbean, Marília Nutti, sees impacts beyond the project’s production security purpose.

"We are very optimistic of the impact of the work we are doing in the Northeast,” says Marilia. “Our work not only recognizes, but also values the cultural and agricultural diversity of each region, tailoring interventions to farmers’ needs. This is driving the growing popularity of biofortification. In Piauí, for example, many students in high schools are expressing interest agriculture, with some even indicating that they intend to study biofortification at university.”

See a photo slideshow of the solar-powered irrigation units and their recipients below.