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Farmers battle drought through biodiesel made from cotton waste

The biodiesel is manufactured by crushing cotton seeds separated from cotton bales during ginning.

Recent years have been particularly tough on Kenyan farmers. The country has endured three consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall.

Last year, the government declared a national drought emergency for 23 of the country’s 47 counties; 13 are under drought emergency so far this year. This erratic rainfall is part of the reason nearly three million Kenyans are food insecure.

While irrigation systems could help provide a more stable source of water, they currently cover only six to eight per cent of Kenya’s land. Some farmers, though, are gaining access to them through a novel source of power—biodiesel made from crushed cotton seeds.

Taher Zavery runs a cotton-ginning factory in Kitui. He manufactures biodiesel by crushing the cotton seeds separated from cotton bales during ginning. By using waste instead of growing crops specifically for biodiesel, he produces quite a lot of fuel.

So far, he has provided loans for and supplied 105 biodiesel-fueled water pumps to nearby cotton and food crop farmers, with help from a USAID grant.   

Abel Mutie lives about 1.6km from Kitui on a five-acre plot. He supplements his salary as a teacher in the local primary school with income from his farm. While he previously used a petrol-based water pump, the biodiesel-based pump offers several advantages.

For one, Mutie can run the biodiesel pump 12 hours a day; the petrol pump needed a break of at least one hour after about five hours of use. It also costs less to operate. On an average day, he uses three litres of biodiesel as opposed to six litres of petrol. The biodiesel costs about Sh20 less per litre than petrol.

Most crucially, the biodiesel pump can irrigate a bigger portion of land, which has allowed Mutie to start growing onions. He harvested over 4,000kgs of onions last year, earning about Sh400,000.

He was able to pay off the balance for his biodiesel pump, which cost about Sh35,000, and use the rest to buy more fertiliser, pay school fees for his children and save some to help his family get through the next inevitable extreme weather event. 

While Mutie is not alone in reaping the benefits of biodiesel-based water pumps, not all have seen his level of success. Boniface Wambua increased the portion of his land under irrigation by using a biodiesel-powered water pump.

He made about Sh50,000 in the first season of using it, which he used to pay fees for the five of his six children who still attend school. Last year, however, the drought was followed by more extreme weather: unusually heavy rains in April and May. The flash floods washed away his tomato crop and tree seedlings.

He hopes that the onions he recently transferred from their seedbed will grow well, and that he’ll be able to pay off the remaining debt on his pump.

But therein lies another challenge for farmers seeking water pumps and other technology for agriculture: financing.

Zavery had hoped financial institutions would provide loans to farmers so they could purchase biodiesel irrigation pumps, yet none of them would because the farmers didn’t have bank accounts.

Microfinance institutions quoted interest rates as high as 45 per cent. Zavery’s company, Kitui Industries, ended up providing loans as well as the pumps, putting themselves in a risky position financially.

Mary Mwinzi, operations manager of Kitui Industries, assesses which farmers will be able to repay loans and works with them to use the pumps to earn additional income. While she is willing to offer a grace period for struggling farmers, paying back the loans is essential for the business model to be sustainable.

Companies like Zavery’s will only become more essential in the face of growing climate risks like erratic rainfall and frequent and prolonged droughts.

One potential solution to expanding farmers’ access to climate adaptation technologies is pay-as-you-go (PAYG) models, where a company rents out a renewable energy system to a farmer. These types of models are already helping rural Africans gain access to electricity through solar home systems.

Currently only relatively small home systems are available through PAYG arrangements, but larger systems such as irrigation pumps could also operate that way if local financial institutions would provide loans to PAYG companies. 

-Adapted from World Resources Institute.  

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