Energy Needs in Smallholder Agriculture

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Access to modern energy services and equipment for smallholder farmers in developing countries could have significant positive impacts on food security, gender empowerment, and rural poverty. The publication "Growing Power: Exploring energy needs in smallholder agriculture" by Sarah Best, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), analyses the ‘productive uses’ of energy.

The broad challenges faced by both the food and energy sector are: achieving universal energy access, de-coupling from fossil fuels, producing and consuming energy more efficiently, avoiding costly waste, and preserving the natural resource base. The paper explains the 'why', 'what' and 'how' of energy needs and access for smallholders and rural enterprises, encouraging discussion on how these challenges can be tackled.

Productive Use of Energy

While other approaches define productive uses of energy in a rather broad way, this paper defines productive uses of energy as uses that "directly increase incomes or add value to goods and services such as power for milling machine" (p.10). Nonetheless, it acknowledges the importance of energy for other uses such as education or health services.

-> Please also see the article "Productive Use of Electricity" for more information on different definitions of productive use, as well as other articles on the "Productive Use Portal".

Smallholder Energy Needs

Quantifying the energy access gap in smallholder-based food systems is challenging, as energy sources and uses are diverse among the millions of small farms, rural enterprises and communities. Nevertheless, some data provide an idea on the scale of the problem, for example for the case of Sub-Saharan Africa:

  • 65% of farm power relies on human power, 25% on animal power and only 10% on engines. Compared to other developing regions, with engines generating 50% of farm power, this is very low [1].
  • Only 4% of cropland is irrigated. In South Asia this is 39%, and in East Asia 29% [2].
  • About 10-20% of grains are lost after harvest, accounting for about US$4bn. Key causes are lack of appropriate storage, processing, and cooling equipment [3].

Energy needs of smallholders and rural enterprises can be categorized into two main types:

energy for transport, and
energy for production, processing and commercialisation of goods, including diverse activities e.g. pumping water, irrigating crops, drying etc. (see figure below).

The paper - as well as most of the available literature - focuses on the latter. Other energy inputs, such as indirect energy inputs (e.g. fertilisers) and household energy (e.g. for cooking) are not covered by the paper.

Energy input agricultural value chain PracticalAction2014.png

Depending on the level of power needed and the resources availbale locally, different energy technologies are required:

  • Electrical energy: suitable for powering water pumps, milling machines, fridges;
  • Mechanical energy: suitable for production and processing e.g. for harvesters or tractors;
  • Thermal energy: suitable for different value-adding processes e.g. cooking, drying, cooling.

The report points out that mechanical and thermal energy are not sufficiently targeted by policymakers and donors.

Regarding areas of energy needs, the paper highlights land preparation, irrigation, processing, storage:

Land preparation

Most land is tilled, ploughed and weeded by aninmal and human power in Sub-Saharan Africa (65% human effort, 25% animals, 10% engines) [1].

Weeding is, in particular, very time consuming and physically demanding. At the same time, weeding is critical as more than 30% of crops are averagely lost due to weed infestation.

The use of machines could increase yields substantially i.e. a farm family using human power can cultivate 1.5 hectares per year, while the use of animal power would lead to an increase of up to 4 hectares and the use of tractor-power even to 8 hectares.


In Sub-Saharan Africa only 4% of land is irrigated. Irrigation would allow farmers to grow one or more crops throughout the year, decreasing farmers' vulnerability.

There are different technical options for irrigation, for more information see e.g. an article on irrigation methods on


Key processing activities are drying, milling and pressing. Using machinery saves manual labour and increases efficiency. Drying and cooling of fruit and meat is crucial for preserving food and for meeting quality standards. There is potential for applying thermal energy technologies, such as solar dryers.


Improved storage is crucial for reducing post-harvest food losses. This includes refrigeration and requires energy inputs.

-> See also the article "Energy within Food and Agricultural Value Chains" and "Refrigeration: Solar Cooling"

Recommendations for projects promoting a "productive use of energy"

While aforementioned data and information provide a broad overview of energy gaps and needs, aligning priorities with local settings is crucial. Interventions need to be more people-centred, "bottom-up", and need to be better tailored to local contexts - as have shown experiences from energy as well as agricultural mechanization. This requires to specifically answer e.g.:

  • what do people want energy for?
  • which type of equipment is used?
  • what can people afford?
  • what about the capactiy to run and maintain systems?

Thus, it is necessary to take a holistic view on smallholders' energy needs beyond the farm gate. Projects at the Energy-Agriculture Nexus should therefore take a demand-led approach, being situated in a wider rural development context (e.g. energy for health clinics vs. energy for farming). The paper provides further recommendations:

1. Value chain analysis can help pinpoint energy needs and opportunities
e.g. to identify bottlenecks to productivity, or pinpoint where energy could have biggest impacts on income, what is most cost-effective etc.

2. Needs assessments should place a strong emphasis on gender
About 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries is made up by women. They mostly have less access to productive assets than men. If this access of women would increase, the respective yields could be risen by 20-30%[4]

3. Needs vary hugely across different farming systems
Smallholders are a heterogeneous group, working with diverse farming systems - depending on crops, locality, context, culture and agro-ecological zones. Thus, solutions have to be selected accordingly.

4. 'Modern energy services' is not always the answer to a benefit
Farmers need to weigh up the costs and the benefits of using modern energy services. Sometimes, significant improvements can be reached through low-cost, 'traditional' technology e.g. treadle pumps.

Impacts of energy access on smallholders

The paper concludes that robust empirical evidence is scarce, even though it is believed that energy is essential to poverty reduction. Partly, this is due to the fact that energy is one out of many inputs to productive processes and it is difficult to untangle its impact from other factors.

Some exceptions are mentioned:

Further research is thus needed, particularly, on micro-level evidence. Outcomes need to be monitored over time and should be evaluated in a broader context than income. Furthermore, costs and trade-offs need to be examined, as should be the distribution of benefits.

Energy sector approach versus agri-food sector approach

To understand which interventions have been tried by the energy as well as the agri-food sector, it is crucial to know how to address energy needs in smallholder agriculture.

Energy sector

Energy development is shifting its approach from supply-led and being focused on technical and cost issues, to focusing more on users’ needs, local context and sustainable delivery models. Central are modern energy services. There are two main types of interventions in energy access initiatives that are related to the energy-agriculture nexus:

  1. Large-scale rural electrification programmes: typically focus on electricity grid extension, but also include mini-grid and off-grid supply.
  2. Standalone, off-grid energy systems: (mechanical, thermal, electrical) often small-scale; overlap with agricultural mechanization activities.

Agri-food sector

Main targets of the agri-food sector are improving farmer livelihoods, agricultural productivity and other sustainability outcomes. Thereby, energy is both an input and an output of farming. Next to modern energy services, the agri-food sector is interested in human and animal power. Strategies of addressing power deficits include increasing supply power as well as reducing its need:

  1. Agricultural mechanization: increases productivity by focusing on the appropriate technology (i.e. appropriate to the social and economic conditions of the local area, environmentally sustainable, and cost effective). E.g. tractors, handpowered tools, or irrigation.
  2. Sustainable agriculture: is concerned with the efficient use of recources by means of integrated management of natural resources, environmental protection, avoiding fossil fuel inputs and emissions, sustainable bioenergy, and increasing productivity and incomes. E.g. no-till agriculture.

Energy flows in a small scale farm IIED.png

This graph shows an example of a small-scale, low-input, family managed farming enterprise showing energy flows through the system. Outputs are primarily fresh food for local consumption, although they may also be delivered to local processing companies. Along with human and animal power, some direct energy inputs can be obtained from other sources, such as solar thermal and solar PV systems and biogas produced by using a simple anaerobic digester [5].

Cross-sectoral collaboration

Several opportunities for cross-sectoral collaboration emerge:

  • Mapping energy needs of smallholders and agri-food chains
  • Appropriate delivery models for low-cost technology and services specific to smallholder needs and context
  • Linking ‘productive uses’ with sustainable resource management
  • Addressing bottlenecks to take-up new technologies or farming practices (capacity, finance, maintenance and repair services, market access, land rights)
  • Promoting energy literacy among farmer organisations

Conclusion and way forward

The paper concludes that there is some good experience on the technical options for access to modern energy services for smallholders and rural enterprises in developing countries. Lessons learnt include the importance of capactiy building and addressing end-user finance constraints, and the demand for tailored approaches for agricultural and processing activities.

Another lesson learnt is the need to involve users strongly in project design in order to ensure a needs-based approach. One concrete idea is to implement energy literacy campaigns in order to help people understand opportunities, articulate their needs and demand for high quality services from government and providers.

The paper identifies a knowledge gap with regards to economically viable delivery models for different energy needs in farming, as well as concerning the role of the private sector in providing energy services to smallholders. Moreover, further analyses are needed on the impacts of energy access on smallholder productivity, livelihoods and well-being.

One main aim of the paper is bringing together approaches and experiences of the energy and the agri-food sector by addressing energy needs and challenges in smallholder farming. Integration is thus essential for the way forward regarding the challenge of increasing access to modern energy for smallholders, while supporting a transition to more environmentally sustainable food and energy systems.


Growing Power: Exploring energy needs in smallholder agriculture. IIED, London, Best, S., (2014)

Further Information


  1. 1.0 1.1 FAO/UNIDO, 2008. Agricultural Mechanization in Africa. Time for Action: Planning Investment for enhanced agricultural productivity. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FAO/UNIDO, 2008" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Practical Action, 2012. Poor People's Energy Outlook 2012. Practical Action Publishing, Rugby, UK.
  3. The World Bank, 2011. Missing Food: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  4. FAO, 2011. The State of Food and Agriculture 2010-2011. Women in Agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development.
  5. FAO (2011a), ‘Energy-Smart’ Food for People andfckLRClimate, Issue Paper, FAO, Rome.