Empowering female farmers through improved access to water technologies

By Manohara Khadka, Country Representative – Nepal, IWMI:

“I wish to have a solar powered irrigation pump (SIP),” said a female farmer from Madhavpatti village in the Parsa district of Nepal’s Province No. 2, “but I don’t know how to access one.”

Solar irrigation technology has the potential to empower more than 12 million women farmers across Nepal who constitute the backbone of the country’s farming system. Why? In Nepal, managing water for drinking, livestock, sanitation, and homestead irrigation largely remains the responsibility of women and girls. Yet for women producers and entrepreneurs in particular, their limited access to water and related technologies, information, skills, and finance services prevents them from participating in and benefitting from integrated irrigated agriculture development. Improving the accessibility of SIP technologies can help to address some of the challenges these women face, especially those from the poorest and marginalized households.

Vegetable farmer who uses solar pumps for irrigation in the Kamalpur.
Photo: Nabin Baral / IWMI


Solar irrigation technology can be a solution for advancing gender equality

A solar irrigation program providing a 60 percent subsidy on solar equipment has been running since 2016, the same year that saw the launch of Nepal’s Renewable Energy Subsidy Policy. In recent years, farmers’ demand for solar irrigation in Nepal has been extremely high. For example, during the 2019/2020 fiscal year, the Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) — the government agency for renewable energy — received 13,000 applications for SIPs. However, the AEPC can meet just four percent of the total SIP demand from farmers. As of 2020, roughly 1,400 SIPs are installed in the country, mostly in Terai region.

With an eye on the future, White Paper 2018 explores the current status of (and provides a future roadmap for) Nepal’s energy and water resources, setting targets for producing 200 megawatts of solar energy by 2030 to facilitate water access for irrigation, water supply, and other uses. If implemented, these policy provisions would help accelerate the advancement of women farmers’ socioeconomic status.

Women currently make up more than 74 percent of agricultural producers and constitute roughly five percent of landowners. SIPs can reduce women’s burdens, as the technology is easy to operate and less labor-intensive than diesel pumps. The technology also facilitates water access for multiple uses, ranging from agriculture and drinking to sanitation, livestock, and homestead greenery. And unlike diesel pump-based irrigation equipment, the solar pumps don’t emit carbon and have low maintenance costs.

With gradual changes in traditional gender roles in Nepal, women are becoming more involved in institutions, policy spaces, and agro-business. Indeed, today 40 percent of lawmakers in local government are women, and women own 30 percent of small-scale enterprises. They also made up more than 26 percent of public sector’s workforce last year, against eight percent in 2008. SIPs can help further connect women from farms, institutions, and markets if solar irrigation policies and programs are designed to be gender responsive and transformative. Additionally, SIPs can help provide a political solution for connecting women to nutritious food access and markets and tackling gender inequality and social exclusion by increasing women’s leadership and decision-making opportunities.

But for these visions to become reality, a clear roadmap is required — one that must involve scaling SIPs by weaving techno-social, institutional, financial, environmental, and governance dimensions into the public and private sector’s involvement with solar energy projects.

What a roadmap could look like

First, we need to assess women’s needs and preferences with regard to SIPs (e.g. size, financing, skills for operation, crops types, and water uses) while also assessing barriers, including power relations that prevent women’s access to SIP technology.

Second, dedicated gender action plans are critical to help women become SIP owners, users, and service providers (including local solar technicians). Promoting SIP technology targeted at women and marginal farmers signifies they must be considered as ‘stakeholders,’ and for this, we need to promote small-sized solar pumps.

Third, female farmers should be enabled through a policy that facilitates their access to subsidies and increases their technical knowledge on SIPs and agricultural inputs services. While the current subsidy policy on SIPs aims to improve livelihoods and food security of smallholder farmers, it lacks gender equity-specific provisions.

Fourth, a dedicated investment and monitoring mechanism is needed for scaling both SIPs and value-chains of high-value crops that save water and labor while generating multiple benefits for women farmers and entrepreneurs.

Finally, we must enable local governments to develop and implement small-scale renewable energy policies and programs. Engaging female lawmakers and policymakers in local, provincial, and federal government through facilitating their access to scientific information on the water, energy, food, and land nexus is critical. Female decision-makers and policymakers have agency to shape national development in ways that advance gender equality and social inclusivity, and there is a need for strengthening their knowledge and awareness of emerging challenges and opportunities related to solar irrigation technology and its scaling.

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