GENDER storytelling

Transforming Nepali women's farming- one drop at a time

Shivani Chemjong photo Photo credit:  IWMI/Shivani Chemjong
  • Farmers in Nepal's Trai belt, are ditching diesel pumps in favor of grid-connected solar irrigation pumps (SIPs) to irrigate their lands.
  • Diesel pumps are often rented—a challenge for women since they typically lack their own income—and present other logistical challenges. They are also heavy and cumbersome to transport. 
  • Access to solar irrigation pumps is a game changer for women as they can irrigate their fields and see an increase in their yields and eventually their incomes.

This blog post was authored by Shivani Chemjong as part of the CGIAR GENDER Impact Platform training on telling stories about agricultural solutions that work for women. This training took place, in part, during the 2023 CGIAR GENDER conference on October 9-12, 2023, in New Delhi, India. The blog post was first published by the Annarpurna Express but it is re-posted in full below.

Mahaludin Khatoon, 64, strolls alongside a lush green rice field on a bright and sunny day. A solar panel sits right in the middle of the field. Once there, she extends her hand behind the panel and presses a green switch to activate her pump. There is a distant gurgling sound for a moment and soon after water gushes past her hand and into the adjacent irrigation channel.

With a satisfied smile, Mahaludin remarks, “Every day, this solar-powered system brings life to these fields, ensuring a bountiful harvest for our community.”

Over the past decade, a quiet revolution is taking place in Nepal’s Tarai belt, as farmers are ditching diesel pumps in favor of grid-connected solar irrigation pumps (SIPs) to irrigate their lands. 

Solar-powered pumps are particularly valuable for irrigation because they can be used in remote or off-grid locations where other power sources may not be readily available. Diesel pumps, predominantly operated by the men in agricultural communities, limit women’s participation in critical agricultural activities.

Diesel pumps are often rented—a challenge for women since they typically lack their own income—and present other logistical challenges. The need for transport to and from the rental location is a hurdle in itself. These pumps are heavy and cumbersome to transport, which can be particularly daunting for women who may not have access to suitable means of carrying them. Furthermore, the process of manually starting the diesel pumps can be physically demanding and technically intricate.

Mahaludin says, “In the past, using diesel pumps was a challenge for me, and I was primarily confined to household duties. However, since we installed the grid-connected solar irrigation pump, I can now effortlessly manage the pumps even when my son or husband aren’t home. I no longer have to rely on anyone else or experience delays in irrigating the fields.”

Mahaludin skilfully irrigates her kitchen garden using a motor. Her ability to operate the SIP with ease has brought a sense of independence, eliminating the need to depend on male counterparts of her family for field irrigation. A female committee has been formed in Chipparmai Rural Municipality to oversee decision making related to the solar irrigation pumps. Mahaludin leads this female committee.

Although gender roles have been deeply entrenched for centuries in Chipparmai, having a grid-connected SIP has been a game-changer for women like Mahaludin Khatoon. Access to solar irrigation pumps lets women take charge of their farming operations—they can irrigate their fields, leading to increased crop yields and potentially higher income. By adopting solar technology, women farmers can also contribute to sustainable farming practices by reducing their environmental impact.

Behind the scenes, dedicated individuals like Bhulan Kumar Shah, a junior technical assistant, play a pivotal role in promoting SIPs and gender-responsive agriculture. Bhulan’s involvement with SIPs dates back to their inception, and he has witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of this technology.

Bhulan explains that the allocation of SIPs is not arbitrary; rather, it’s a well-thought-out process. Last year, out of the 48 farmers who received SIPs, 10 were women who seized the opportunity. Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) offers a 60 percent subsidy, with the remaining 40 percent funded by the rural municipality. But notably, when land is registered in a woman’s name, Bhulan says the allocation receives priority treatment, expediting the process. The SIPs also come with a two-year warranty, ensuring their reliability and longevity.

SIPs were first introduced in Nepal in 2012, which played a pivotal role in demonstrating the technical viability of SIPs for groundwater irrigation in the Tarai and lifting irrigation in Nepal’s mid-hill regions, then followed by a larger pilot program. These pilot initiatives emphasized the importance of government’s financial support to offset the substantial initial costs, thereby ensuring the economic feasibility of SIPs for Nepali farmers.

To promote SIP adoption, the government initiated its subsidy program in 2016, which has since resulted in a significant increase in female applicants, now comprising one-third of the program’s participants. With a primary objective of promoting renewable energy technologies (RETs) across the country, the AEPC was established in 1996 as a semi-autonomous national entity under the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation. It extends a subsidy of 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent being contributed by the rural municipality.

Traditionally the land is generally owned by the men in families. When women work at the land, the income from the produce is taken by the male family member. An intriguing aspect emerged as we spoke to Mahaludin and her 29-year-old son Najir Miya. Even though the family’s ancestral land is registered under her husband’s name, any new land acquired is registered in the wife’s name—Mahaludin’s name, to be precise.

This deliberate shift in land ownership is not a mere coincidence; it’s a strategic move driven by practicality. The land revenue system bestows certain advantages upon women who own land, making the process quicker and more economical. The registration fees for land under a woman’s name stand at a modest three percent, a significant reduction from the 10 percent levied on land owned by men. It’s a gender-responsive approach that benefits both the family and the community.

These pumps are not merely instruments for irrigating fields; they are catalysts for change, bridging generations, empowering women, and revolutionizing agriculture. Grid-connected SIPs have revolutionized the way water is drawn for farming, making it not just more sustainable but also more environmentally friendly. This transformation couldn’t have come at a better time, as climate change-induced uncertainties loom large over the agrarian landscape.

In the gentle hum of a SIP, we hear the whisper of progress, the promise of a more equitable future. The story of Mahaludin Khatoon is emblematic of the larger narrative unfolding across rural landscapes. It’s a narrative of resilience, adaptability, and the harmonious coexistence of tradition and innovation. The journey of grid-connected SIPs has just begun, but the path ahead is illuminated by the warm embrace of the sun, the ingenuity of farmers, and the determination to create a better tomorrow for all, one drop of water at a time