The Role of Productive Use of Renewable Energy Appliances in Regenerative Agriculture Settings: Insights from the Joint Learning Mission in Kenya

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Regenerative agriculture (RA) has emerged as a promising approach to transform food systems and address sustainability challenges. In April 2023, partners supported by the IKEA Foundation in Kenya embarked on a Joint Learning Mission to showcase the achievements of RA projects, share experiences, and discuss the challenges and lessons learned. Michael Maina from CLASP and Jakub Vrba from Energy Saving Trust were invited to join the group as Efficiency for Access (EforA) representatives to identify synergies between RA and productive use of renewable energy (PURE) appliances to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. This article summarises the key highlights and insights gained from the learning mission, shedding light on innovative RA practices and opportunities for further development.

Learning Workshop

The mission kicked off with a workshop in Nairobi, where each organisation presented their initiatives, including a masterclass on soil health from Carlos Alho of Wageningen University. We presented findings from a recent EforA report which explores the adoption of PURE technologies in RA settings across five value chains. From the various presentations, we noted the significant focus on soil health improvement and production economics, especially on the use of organic versus inorganic fertilisers, with little mention on mechanisation through PURE. This, however, presents an opportunity for the adoption of PURE technologies and equipment to reduce drudgery in production, minimise post-harvest losses through storage and drying and encourage value addition to maximise profits for smallholder farmers. A key takeaway from this workshop was the need for improved collaboration and coordination across the RA and PURE spaces through knowledge sharing and greater consideration of the links between regenerative agriculture, and energy access in programme design as well as in policy efforts.

Day Two: Site visits to regenerative farms in Makueni

Justus’ Citrus Farm

The second day involved visits to three RA farms in Makueni. Justus, the farm owner and Village-Based Advisor (VBA), invited us to his farm, emphasising the importance of minimal soil disturbance through Zai pits, crop rotation, and intercropping. He also highlighted the labour-intensive nature of RA in the initial stages and the gradual reduction of input costs over time. Justus’ farm serves as a demonstration site for other farmers in the region, showcasing the practical implementation of RA principles.

One of the main challenges highlighted by the farmer was the lack of water, especially during dry seasons. While Zai pits are designed to maximise water retention and availability to crops, without steady rainfall, these pits cannot serve the intended purpose. To ensure that his citrus fruits have access to much needed water during the dry season, the farmer relies on water from a water bowser which he termed as costly and unsustainable. Although he mentioned a planned installation of a borehole, surface run-off and rainwater harvesting coupled with a solar water pump can address this challenge and provide much needed irrigation services.

Another PURE opportunity is to deploy a walk-in cold room to reduce post-harvest losses and increase the shelf life of Justus’ produce – oranges and pixies (crossbreed of oranges and tangerines). Oranges require temperatures below 8 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of 85-95%. Similar conditions are required for pixies. Therefore, the walk-in cold room could have a positive impact on soil health through land sparing – one of the RA practices. It should be noted that minimising post-harvest losses at the farm gate could reduce the amount of organic matter used as compost, although losses also occur post farm gate without appropriate cold chain – during transportation and end-user sales.

Figure 1. Citrus farm in Makueni; farm owner and Village Based Advisor Justus (left) and Zai pits (right)


Mary’s Poultry Farm

Mary, another farmer, and VBA in Makueni, shared her experience in crop cultivation and poultry farming, including the use of solar lighting in chicken brooders. Mary’s farm serves as an example of how RA practices can be integrated with value-added activities such as honey production and baking. Her farm is a prime example of locally led innovation which was also acknowledged by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, who visited her farm a few months before.

Despite lacking a grid connection, Mary has adopted mechanisation to support her value addition business which includes brooding day-old chicks using solar lighting and efficient biomass stoves, and rearing mature chickens for eggs and meat. To support her chicken farming business, Mary processes her own feeds with the help of a milling and mixing machine donated by the County Government of Makueni. Alongside her chicken farming business, the farmer in partnership with fellow farmers within the area sell animal fodder such as Boma Rhodes grass which is baled on site using a non-motorised hand baler. However, all of the equipment, including the chaff cutter, feed mixer, sack stitching machine, and the improvised sorghum thresher are powered by diesel generators, which are expensive to operate and maintain.

Despite Mary and fellow farmers receiving a lot of support from development partners, there is a gap in the promotion and adoption of PURE technologies to support innovative farmers with value addition. Highly efficient PURE technologies can replace existing diesel-powered generators to power these machines and potentially increase farmers’ margins. The mechanised equipment on Mary’s farm is often used for short periods of time, which could be served by a small solar micro-grid rather than having various standalone appliances with individual solar panels.

Figure 2. Portable sorghum thresher developed by a youth entrepreneur (left) and chaff cutter (right) – both diesel powered


Jonah’s Vegetable Farm

On Day Two, we also visited a solar irrigation project in Makueni, supported by results-based financing (RBF) from EnDev’s Sustainable Energy for Smallholder Farmers (SEFFA) programme. The farm owner Jonah switched from a petrol-powered pump to a solar water pump purchased from SunCulture. Since moving to solar, Jonah has increased his returns and improved water use efficiency, especially after installing an elevated water tank. Although the farmer has adopted solar irrigation technology and has access to market for his produce, he could benefit from extension services to increase the productivity of his farm through appropriate use of compost and organic fertilisers. The success of this project emphasised the potential for solar irrigation in enhancing agricultural productivity and reduced operational costs by eliminating the use of petrol as outlined in this recent news article. Jonah’s farm could potentially be used to provide practical learning for other farmers including advice on various sustainable irrigation practices such as drip irrigation or rainwater harvesting.

Figure 3. Solar water pump (left) and visitors admiring the system (right)


Day Three: Agroforestry, Carbon Credits, and Organic Fertiliser Production

On the third day, Farm Africa presented their agroforestry and carbon credits project in Embu. The project demonstrated the potential for generating income through tree nurseries and participating in voluntary carbon market. The use of Agribot, powered by Microsoft, enables streamlined communications with the farmers. Using carbon credits for PURE is currently being trialled for solar water pumps and refrigerators but the methodologies still need to be refined to reach the scale of more prevalent projects in agroforestry or clean cooking.

Adopting Circularity in the Rice Value Chain – Organic Fertiliser Production from Rice based Biochar

The Mwea Rice Growers Multipurpose Co-operative Society (MRGMCS) in partnership with Kilimo Trust and Safi Organics hosted the final site visit. The cooperative has committed to supplying Safi Organics with at least 50% of the rice husks produced from the milling process, which are then carbonised into biochar and fortified to include other useful soil nutrients. This mutually beneficial relationship between Safi Organics and MRGMCS ensures that Safi Organics has a steady supply of biochar, which is then used by rice farmers to substitute synthetic fertilisers. Overapplication of these synthetic fertilisers leads to increased soil acidity, especially in paddy fields and as a result the need for more fertiliser application to sustain yields. Rice husks are a versatile natural material which can also be used for walk-in cold room insulation.

One of the main challenges facing the cooperative society is the high cost of rice milling occasioned by rising electricity costs. Additionally, competing needs for rice husks such as furniture making, and use of rice husks as fuel for large industries such as cement production reduces the availability of rice husks for Safi Organics. An opportunity to support MRGMCS through the adoption of more efficient industrial scale mills and solarisation of the milling and drying processes could reduce the overall cost of rice milling.

Figure 4. Biochar production from rice husks (left) and organic fertiliser (right) 


Reflections and Lessons Learned

The Joint Learning Mission offered valuable insights on current RA practices in Kenya and opportunities for the adoption of PURE technologies across value chains. Several key reflections emerged from the discussions and farm visits:

  • A holistic approach is needed to improve farmers’ livelihoods and economic empowerment:
    Current support on RA practices places great emphasis on improved soil health for increased yields while limited attention is given to reducing post-harvest losses and / or value addition. There is a need for collaboration with other key sector players who can support farmers along the value chain with:

      • a. Extension services during production
      • b. Post-harvest loss reduction and (cold) storage to increase the shelf life of produce
      • c. Value addition and market linkages to ensure that farmers get better prices for their produce.
  • Increased awareness of PURE technologies can unlock widespread adoption:
    The mission revealed limited awareness of solar-powered technologies among farmers, but a significant interest in learning and collaboration. Engaging cooperatives and farmer producer organisations emerged as a crucial strategy to strengthen linkages between RA and PURE appliances. In addition, most village-based advisors’ farms serve as demonstration centres for other farmers. These farms can also serve as PURE demonstration centres where farmers can learn more about the various applications of PURE technologies, their benefits, existing sellers and available financing options to acquire these technologies.
  • Close collaboration between regenerative agriculture and energy access stakeholders is key:
    There is a need for better coordination between RA and PURE players to break the silos and combine their focus areas in development programmes at the design stage. Close collaboration between the public and private sectors is equally important to enable market transformation and long-term sustainability.


The Joint Learning Mission for regenerative agriculture in Kenya showcased the achievements, challenges, and opportunities associated with this transformative approach. The on-site visits to regenerative farms highlighted the practical use of RA practices and the potential for scalability. Moreover, the discussions around solar irrigation and organic fertiliser production shed light on the diverse avenues for sustainable agriculture. By embracing collaboration between regenerative agriculture and energy access stakeholders, Kenya and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa can make significant strides towards building resilient and sustainable food systems. This topic will be further explored at Africa’s Food System Forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in September 2023.



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