Benin: History


For the first time, women farmers in the rural villages of Bessassi and Dunkassa in northern Benin are able to grow vegetables and fruits during the six month dry season, improving food security and nutrition for themselves and their families. Farmers are also increasing their income by selling excess crops in the market. Now entering its third year, SELF’s Solar Market Garden project has proved that solar energy can provide long term solutions to hunger, malnutrition and poverty in developing nations.


The Kalalé District of Benin is a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country with approximately 100,000 people – none of whom have access to the electric grid. The economy, as in most rural districts, is mainly based on agriculture with more than 95% of the population involved with farming. Despite its great potential, crop production in Kalalé remains weak and easily influenced by natural conditions. There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.

During the dry season, the land of Kalalé is parched and its people are hungry. Malnutrition is widespread, as evidenced by the many children with distended bellies – a telltale sign of kwashiorkor, a condition caused largely by a lack of protein and micronutrients. The most pressing challenge for all the people of Kalalé is having enough food to eat.

SELF’s involvement in Benin began in 2006 when we were first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé who had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany. Mamoudou, now a Professor at Texas A&M University, had recently participated in a Kalalé district council meeting to explore options for electrifying the region’s villages since the national grid would not be extended to this remote part of Benin anytime in the foreseeable future.

Believing that solar power might answer the needs of his people, Mamoudou turned to SELF for help. Over the next few months, we put together a plan to generate solar electricity for a wide range of end-uses – including schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, street lighting, and wireless Internet access – in each of the 44 villages that comprise Kalalé District.

In terms of priority, however, an on-the-ground needs assessment revealed that the first concern among the local communities was food security: to find a way to overcome the endemic lack of water and agricultural produce that condemn the people of Kalalé to an endless cycle of poverty and poor health.

Objectives & Solutions

To address the problem, SELF approached Professor Dov Pasternak, at the time a leading drip irrigation expert with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRASAT). Pasternak had developed the “Africa Market Garden” – a simple but highly effective method of using drip irrigation to grow high-value fruits and vegetables on small plots of arid land in the Sahel region of Africa.

Prior to working with SELF, Pasternak used diesel generators to power the water pumps used in his drip irrigation systems. We proposed solar as a more viable alternative, both economically and environmentally. (In a SELF white paper, it is shown that the payback period for solar pumping – as compared with diesel – can be less than two years, and that’s at today’s diesel prices which are going up, and solar prices which are going down.)

Finally, in November 2007 SELF partnered with Association pour le Developpement Economique Social et Culturel de Kalalé (ADESCA) to launch a remarkable pilot project, installing an innovative solar-powered drip irrigation system to pump water for food crops. SELF engineers developed a 1.2 kW solar electric power supply that provides 100% of the energy for the pump. SELF secured seed funding for the project by emerging as a winner in the 2006 Global Development Marketplace competition, sponsored by the World Bank.


Bob Freling, SELF’s executive director, returned to Dunkassa and Bessassi with a French television crew in June 2009 to spend time with the people and film their progress. Bob immediately noticed a difference in the women, who have filled out since his last visit. Not only are the women better fed, but so are the children and the rest of the villagers who now have year-round access to a steady supply of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What’s more, the women are earning an extra $7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at the local market. Bob was there on market day, and was delighted to see the women march proudly into town with their baskets filled to the brim with leafy green vegetables.

Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment (FSE) conducted an economic and environmental assessment of our multi-sector intervention in Benin, beginning with the pilot phase. FSE published its findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2010. Researchers found that income and nutrition have improved significantly for women and their families since SELF installed three solar irrigation systems in 2007. The study also concluded that SELF’s Solar Market Garden is cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. The systems should pay for themselves in approximately 2.3 years; and they are durable, emissions-free, and more economical over time compared with gasoline- or diesel-powered water pumps.

National Geographic has awarded a grant to SELF through its “Great Energy Challenge” program. This grant will enable us to move forward with our plans for whole village electrification in the villages of Bessassi and Dunkassa.

The Great Energy Challenge is an important three-year partnership between National Geographic and Shell, designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation. National Geographic has assembled some of the world’s foremost researchers and scientists to help tackle the challenge. Led by Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic conservation fellow and renowned biologist, the team of advisers will work together to identify and provide support for projects focused on innovative energy solutions.

Future Needs

SELF’s solar installation has made a dramatic impact on the health and quality of life for the people of Bessassi and Dunkassa. But there is much more work to be done. While SELF has begun drilling wells in each of these two villages – ensuring access to clean, safe drinking water – there are 42 more villages anxiously waiting for solar-powered drip irrigation.

By bringing solar energy to power schools, homes, health clinics, street lights and microenterprise centers, we can empower Beninese women and their families to lift themselves out of poverty, ensuring a brighter future for all.

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