By Alexei Koseff      

The rural Kalalé district of northern Benin is largely dependent on agriculture. But during the long dry season, there is not enough surface water to irrigate crops. And because Kalalé is off the electric grid, impoverished farmers have no way to pump irrigation water from underground. As a result, local food prices rise and malnutrition intensifies.       

In 2007, the nonprofit Solar Electric Light Fund(SELF) launched an innovative project to electrify the Kalalé district by harnessing energy from the sun. Working in two villages, SELF installed solar-powered drip-irrigation systems designed to give farmers the ability to grow vegetables and generate income year-round. 

But would solar power be effective in a remote rural area? And would it allow farming to flourish while remaining eco-friendly? Researchers from Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment decided to find out. With the help of an Environmental Venture Projects (EVP) grant from the Woods Institute for the Environment, the research team began monitoring the economic, agricultural and environmental impacts of SELF's solar-powered irrigation project in Benin.   

The Stanford team is evaluating the extent to which solar power can be used in a cost-competitive and sustainable manner compared to other energy alternatives, such as diesel generators. The goal of the project is to help shape the debate on how best to promote sustainable rural development in poor regions, said EVP researcher Jennifer Burney, a postdoctoral scholar with Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. "The EVP was really helpful for us in terms of bringing together a team that could really address this problem," Burney said.    

Installation of the pumps, underground pipes and photovoltaic panels was led by specially trained residents in both villages.  Once installed, Burney and her colleagues monitored the impact of the new groundwater irrigation systems. The results were striking. For the first time, farmers in both villages had enough water to grow produce during the dry season. Their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As a result of the pilot projects, SELF may extend solar electrification to the other 42 villages in the Kalalé district and eventually throughout rural Benin.

"Thorough evaluation tends to be too expensive, both in time and in resources, for development organizations to undertake alone," Burney said. "The EVP grant has been critical for us, because it makes up the marginal cost of doing this kind of evaluation properly. While we seek to shed light on the potential for solar-based development, we also hope that this project will provide a model for increasing interaction and collaboration between academia and development."   


Alexei Koseff is a science-writing intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.