You are here:

Solar irrigation pumps for growth: How Uganda's 'Pump Up' project aims to transform smallholder farming


As climate change's impacts ripple across the frontlines of the most vulnerable communities in Northern Uganda, Mercy Corps and its energy access platform Energy 4 Impact stand firsthand witnesses to the profound toll it takes on smallholder farmers. Striving to build more resilient livelihoods and assist smallholder farming communities in adapting, they have united with well-established private sector companies, Simusolar and Tulima Solar, to launch the "Pump Up" project. Kicked off in July 2023 with the financial support of Danida Green Business Partnership and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this partnership aims to facilitate the penetration of solar irrigation technologies among rural farmers, along with the integration of climate-smart agricultural practices and water resource management. 

Constituting 89% of the agricultural sector, smallholder farmers drive up to 80% of Uganda's agricultural output and contribute 23% to the annual GDP. However, their reliance on rainfed agriculture leaves them susceptible to unpredictable weather patterns, including prolonged dry spells, erratic rain, and intensifying floods, all of which significantly hamper crop quality and productivity. 

Machine powered irrigation holds immense potential to combat the effects of climate change, making it a key factor in transitioning from subsistence to commercial farming. A recent review of agricultural statistics (Uganda National Irrigation Policy 2017) showed significantly higher yields from irrigated farmlands, with examples such as maize production increasing from 2 to 8 tons per hectare and vegetable yields surging from 15.6 to over 30 tons per hectare in just two seasons. 

Yet, the adoption of irrigation technology remains limited in Uganda, with only 1% of farmers embracing it, and the majority of these systems relying on diesel power. While diesel pumps boast lower upfront costs compared to cleaner and more sustainable options, they entail higher total ownership costs due to ongoing fuel expenses, maintenance, and environmental consequences. Solar water pumps, on the other hand, offer a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative, with potential payback periods of up to 24 months.

There is tremendous untapped demand and growth opportunity in the solar water pumping market in the country, but most Ugandan solar water pump companies largely cater to urban and high-end markets that can afford up-front payments for high-end pumps and are failing to reach smallholder farmers. Over the next three years, the "Pump Up" project is poised to change the landscape and demonstrate the business case for serving these often-overlooked segments that form the backbone of Uganda’s economy.

With a strong understanding of the unique needs of smallholder farmers and active value chain networks, agricultural equipment leaders Simusolar and Tulima Solar can offer tailored solutions that resonate with farmers' challenges and requirements. Mercy Corps and Energy 4 Impact will play a pivotal role in enhancing the adaptive capacities of these commercial partners. By refining their PAYGO consumer financing offering and devising inclusive go-to-market strategies, the partnership will expand the reach and impact of solar water pumps in the worst hit regions Yumbe and Gulu areas and equip farmers with the tools they need to combat the adverse effects of climate change.  In addition to promoting investments in solar water pumps, the project will introduce sustainable agronomic practices such as regenerative agriculture that address land degradation and soil fertility and the adoption and sustainable management of water resources such as rainwater harvesting,drip solutions, and water catchment protection.

Projected to reach over 2,200 individuals, including 500 women and 900 youth, the adoption of solar irrigation water pumps through the Pump Up project is set to improve livelihoods, boost animal and crop yields by 15%, create 50 job opportunities with commercial partners, and empower 500 smallholder farmers—women and youth alike—to thrive in off-season production. Moreover, farmers will see long-term benefits from increased land use efficiency, higher incomes from selling crops during peak dry season, reduced operating costs, and improved knowledge of climate-smart agricultural practices.

With the Pump Up project, Mercy Corps and its partners are sowing the seeds of sustainable growth, resilience, and economic prosperity for the communities of Northern Uganda.