Solar-Powered Milling & Irrigation Bring New Life to An Old Family Home
Magdalene Mbinya is a Kenyan small-scale farmer reaping the benefits of solar-powered farming. Like many Kenyans who grow up in rural or semi-urban areas, Mbinya left her home in Yatta, Machakos County, to pursue her dreams in Nairobi. She enrolled at a university there, completed her studies, and then worked as a social worker at various local and international NGOs. Things were going well until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and disrupted life as she knew it. Mbinya found herself re-evaluating the benefits of city living and eventually decided to return to her rural home in Yatta. Despite the hot and dry conditions there, Mbinya was determined to make the land she inherited from her late parents agriculturally productive.
‘Our place is dry, but I can do something with it. With the manpower, knowledge and exposure that I have, I can change it.’
Despite an above-average rural electrification rate of 62.7% in Kenya, Mbinya’s home is one of many unserved by the national grid. Undaunted by the lack of grid access, Mbinya has invested in solar as an alternative power source for her home and farming projects. Additionally, if it were available to her, Mbinya would be wary of connecting to the national grid due to the costly energy bills — especially with recent electricity price hikes.
‘Now I want solar — pure solar…The goal is to go green completely.’
Mbinya’s beautiful home runs on a solar home system, and she uses a solar pump to channel water from a nearby river to a dam in her compound, enabling her to farm throughout the year — unrestrained by unreliable rain and the area’s arid conditions. At the time of our visit, it was particularly dry and dusty — Mbinya mentioned that it had been almost four months since the last rain. Despite this, we saw young papaya trees and other leafy green vegetables growing on sections of the ten-acre farm.
With her Agsol solar MicroMill, Mbinya provides flour for her household and serves neighbouring homes and schools. Her affordable pricing at KES 5 (USD 0.04) per kilogramme gives her an edge over the posho millers at the market centres. The electric-powered millers charge four times more than Mbinya at KES 20 (USD 0.16) per kilogramme, while the diesel-powered millers charge double at KES 10. Mbinya mills various crops, including maize (most popular), cassava, and chicken feed. Schools are her biggest customers — she currently mills maize flour for two schools, with a combined weekly output of 50 -70 kilograms of maize flour. She makes around KES 3,000–4,000 (USD 24 – 32) from all orders weekly. With this money, she employs someone to operate the mill and serve walk-in customers while she attends to her other business projects.
‘Now that my milling service is cheap; I have so many customers. They even buy maize from Kisiiki market centre (about 7km away) and come to mill it here instead of milling there.’
Mbinya learned about Agsol through her sister, who works for a humanitarian NGO. She was eager to try the MicroMill because of the challenges she had faced obtaining clean flour that didn’t smell of diesel fumes. Also, she knew there was a business opportunity to provide affordable and reliable milling for her community. Mbinya’s milling service is so popular in her neighbourhood that customers from beyond a five-kilometre radius come to buy her flour. Due to this high demand, after her initial lump sum payment, Mbinya managed to pay off the financing for the mill in two instalments over about three months. She attributes her growing customer base to word-of-mouth — customers tell their friends, who tell their other friends and so forth. Mbinya also encourages her customers to share their experiences of using her mill when they meet up for their ‘chama’ meetings (informal savings and investments groups) over the weekend.
‘I would say it’s a good initiative for a village like this one where there’s no power and diesel is expensive. Having a solar mill changes our lifestyle and even the food — it is clean.’
An aspect of the solar mill that Mbinya thinks could be improved is that during overcast conditions, the mill runs out of power early in the day. As a result, she serves fewer customers at those times compared to when it is bright and sunny. Besides that, she’s satisfied with the mill and is happy that she can provide this service to her community. Mbinya’s friends and neighbours have expressed an interest in purchasing Agsol’s MicroMill — the only barrier being affordability. Despite her explaining the consumer financing option to them, people are still hesitant to commit to such a large expense.
Mbinya plans to continue developing her home and farm. Among her goals is to sink a borehole, which would be a more reliable water source during prolonged dry seasons. Meanwhile, she will continue to provide convenient and affordable milling services, which she knows her community needs.
‘…the community really loves it (the mill service), and they appreciate it. They know that the food is clean and very nice.’
Adopting solar technologies like solar water pumps and mills boosts farmers’ productivity and saves energy-related costs while avoiding carbon emissions.
Agsol is based in Kenya and was established in 2016 to develop solar-powered milling machines that can viably serve small communities, improve labour efficiencies, keep more money in rural economies, and catalyse access to higher-tier energy services.
Efficiency for Access has been working with Agsol since 2018, both in research and R&D. The Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund supported Agsol in two projects — the first project was to develop a MicroMill prototype and the second project involved further improvements to the prototype, including efficiency gains and improved affordability. The R&D Fund’s support has helped Agsol create a highly efficient, more affordable small grain mill with a strong product-market fit.