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From Suffolk to South Africa with solar irrigation

Toby Hammond, managing director of award-winning start-up Futurepump, speaks on how the company has found its market niche by keeping it simple, and the role of the private sector in addressing climate impacts.

The Futurepump irrigation technology in use near Siaya County in Kenya. The solar-powered pump is being used in 14 other tropical countries. © Futurepump

We bumped into you recently at the climate-smart agriculture conference in Bali and discovered that Futurepump’s office is just 20 minutes from WRENmedia, based in the Suffolk countryside – small world! How did you come to develop a business working overseas?

Yes, it's funny when things like that happen! I'm really keen on renewable energy in the UK as well, but it's nice to see these technologies delivering impact for some of the lowest-income communities in the world, as well as affluent westerners with solar panels on their roofs and Teslas in their driveways. I once bicycled from London to a UN Summit in Johannesburg and it was this trip that opened my eyes to the continent. There are huge commercial opportunities in Africa; a billion people who have traditionally been viewed as aid beneficiaries are fast becoming aspirational consumers.

Where does your interest and expertise in solar-powered technology and development projects stem from?

I originally studied environmental biology so I can claim no formal training or expertise in either engineering or development projects. I'm interested in the intersection of solar power and development projects because it offers the prospect of doing something which is both environmentally and socially positive. If we succeed in making Futurepump economically viable as well, then we've got a genuine 'triple bottom line' business which is quite a rare thing.

How does the Futurepump innovation help to empower smallholder farmers impacted by erratic weather patterns in the tropics?

Not so many years ago, you could practically set your watch by the rainy seasons in sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, with climate change, this has all been disrupted and that means greater insecurity for the millions of small-scale farmers relying on their crops as their primary source of income. Traditionally, most farmers relied on rainfall to water their crops, but with Futurepump’s irrigation technologies (which also have no running costs) farmers have the opportunity to bring water to their crops even when the rains don't come, improving their yields and incomes.

As a business with sustainability at its core, what role do you think the private sector has to play in addressing the issue of climate change?

I think the private sector can and will be the real engine driving and scaling many of the radical changes that we urgently need to make. To look at a UK example, consider the huge offshore UK wind farms built by EON, SSE and other developers. However, this progress will only happen quickly enough if policymakers step up and set the right enabling environment for companies, and they are completely failing to do that right now. As long as there are huge structural subsidies (such as the £12 billion paid out per year by the UK Government for fossil fuel subsidies), it's an uphill battle for private sector firms trying to promote sustainable solutions.

Do you have any advice for other start-ups in the agriculture sector looking to deliver climate-smart solutions?

I could write a very long book on what NOT to do! But one piece of advice which applies to any start-up is to focus your efforts. We currently work in 15 tropical countries, from Kenya and Uganda to Ghana and The Gambia, through to Papua New Guinea and Nepal. But our approach is basically the same in each country. Complexity is the enemy to scaling up so all of us start-ups (Futurepump included) need to find niches where we can really excel, rather than trying to tackle too many problems simultaneously. In other words, limit your headaches!

Sophie Reeve

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