The promotion of access to water, energy and food security has been a top priority for most African countries. Overcoming potential access gaps would rely on a diversified strategy (e.g. WEF Nexus) complementary to the continent’s growing demand for resources. The WEF Nexus offers an innovative solution with the potential to reveal business models that could connect energy with water and food to respond to essential developmental needs. This goes further to improve access to resources, increase economic productive capacities and drive socio-economic welfare in Africa (RES4Africa Foundation and Enel Foundation, 2019). On the other hand, the interdependency of these resources in some cases has been translated into adverse impacts. Therefore, the implementation of such a solution necessitates integrative thinking and strategic planning.
According to many studies (e.g. Mahmoud, 2021 ed; FSIN and Global Network Against Food Crises, 2021), African countries still face complex challenges such as persistent food and water insecurity, widespread poverty and unemployment, lack of infrastructure and industrial capabilities, population growth, food loss and food waste, economic and political instability. This also includes a surge in demand over basic resources such as water, food and energy and the continuous migration of people (particularly youths) from rural to urban areas as the continent becomes the fastest-urbanizing in the world. Globally, over 759 million people, mostly located in rural Sub-Saharan Africa still do not have access to reliable and affordable electricity, 771 million people lack basic drinking water services, and around 750 million people experience severe food insecurity (IEA et al., 2021; UN-Water, 2021; United Nations, 2020). If business-as-usual continues, the number of people without access to these basic resources is even expected to increase by 2030.
Small-scale rain-fed subsistence agriculture and pastoralism remains the largest source of employment in Africa. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), one of the main causes of food loss and food waste in this sector and particularly Africa is the unavailability of proper food storage such as cold chain facilities, especially for perishables during post-harvesting as well as in later stages of the value chain (FAO, 2016). Even when storage facilities are available, they are unreliable and inadequate due to electricity cuts as well as insufficient agro-processing skills among smallholder farming communities. The total loss of food in sub-Saharan Africa has been estimated at about $4 billion annually (FAO, 2020).
In the context of climate change, the hike in demand for these resources would be exacerbated by the potential effects of climate change to which Africa is particularly vulnerable. “Water scarcity is expected to become an ever-greater concern for many smallholder farmers as seasonal droughts, interspersed by heavy rainfall with high levels of run-off, increasingly undermine their natural resource base” (RES4Africa Foundation and Enel Foundation, 2019). In fact, extreme climate shocks would constrain the capacity of smallholder farmers to cultivate productively and raise livestock. These climate shocks threaten to push them deeper into poverty and make them less able and willing to invest in their production systems (RES4Africa Foundation and Enel Foundation, 2019).
Water management and allocation in a water-scarce environment are potentially conflict-laden tasks with a great impact on developing opportunities for the different sectors as well as on equity and sustainability. Sufficient water supply is essential for the agricultural sector. This has resulted in a push for more irrigated areas demanding the extraction of more water and energy for pumping water from groundwater and surface water. The energy system and sector, itself, in most parts of Africa faces several interrelated challenges such as low energy access, unstable energy security and an increasing environmental degradation. In 2019, only about 56% of the population of Africa had access to electricity (IEA, 2020). According to the same data, the situation is even worse in rural areas with only 37% as to 81% in urban areas having access to electricity (IEA, 2020). Therefore, ensuring access to water, energy and food in Africa is critical and promotes sustainable development.
In Mali, there has been an increasing scarcity of arable lands. Next to arable land being scarce, food loss and waste are additional problems negatively impacting food availability. Access to energy is also a major problem in Mali. Most households in rural areas satisfy their energy needs by using kerosene and batteries, which are expensive and unreliable (African Development Bank Group, 2015). Climate change is expected to exacerbate this situation with potentially severe effects on agriculture, forestry, health, energy, water and many others. Interestingly, in Mali, the agricultural sector and energy sector are among the sectors with the highest emission of greenhouse gasses. These gases are drivers of climate change.
Climate Watch (2020), in analyzing the historical emissions data per sector in Mali, observed an increasing trend in Greenhouse gases emissions with the agricultural and energy sectors being the highest emitters each year, starting from 2013 through 2018. Mali, in 2021, submitted to UNFCCC an updated issue of their 2016 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In this document, Mali strengthened her commitment to reduce emissions in the following sectors: by 31% for the energy sector, 25% for agriculture, 39% for land use and forestry and 31% for waste sectors by 2030 using “business as usual” as the baseline (NDCs: UNFCCC, 2020). For these targets to be achieved, the country must implement new and innovative approaches, particularly in sectors with high emissions. “Energy innovation contributes positively in reducing GHG emissions'' (Álvarez-Herránz et al. 2017).
Long-term and sustainable solutions that improve living conditions and create an enabling environment for socio-economic growth in rural areas would instill market confidence and attract investment appetite for rural markets across Africa. In the absence of grid connected power, solar PV systems have attracted a lot of attention but with very few successful examples to show in the context of the Water, Energy and Food Nexus. While improvements take place every day, efforts are still needed to increase accessibility to energy and make Mali and Africa as a whole a stable and attractive market for investors to speed-up socio-economic development.
Agrivoltaics (AV) represents an integrated dual land-use system that opens the door for several synergies. The basis of agrivoltaics is to increase Land Equivalency Ratio (LER) through the combined use of a single area of land for simultaneous energy and crop production. In recent times, the integration of rainwater harvesting from the PV systems has made it serve a triple land-use purpose. The approach provides energy for productive uses at farm level such as pumping water, operating labor-saving small-scale machinery, raising poultry and producing fodder (chaff cutters), etc., as well as for value-adding processes (grinding, rice milling, drying, packaging, threshing, and ensuring effective cold storage facilities for storing perishable goods). Additionally, the shading provided by the PV modules has the potential to increase agricultural yield through reducing evapotranspiration and physical protection of crops. However, agrivoltaics are yet to be proven as a key innovative element to tackle climate change in Mali and the region.
This paper seeks to reflect on the complex reality facing smallholder farmers and rural communities dependent on rainfed agriculture as their main source of income and explore potentials of agrivoltaics to provide water, energy and food while enhancing rural development and human wellbeing. The paper discusses insights from agriculture, socio-economic and solar energy research conducted within the framework of the APV-MaGa project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The research aims at revealing the challenges and opportunities of agrivoltaics systems as well as to gain a deeper understanding of synergies and interactions between the Water-Food-Energy-Nexus. The project is implemented at the farmland of Rural Polytechnic Institute for Training and Applied Research (IPR/IFRA) located in Katibougou, some 60 km from the country’s capital Bamako.