#10YearsOfSolarImpact: Futurepump, solar-powered irrigation pump innovator for smallholder farmers

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Helen Davies, Marketing and Communications Manager at Futurepump

Tell us a bit about Futurepump, Helen

Futurepump is a manufacturer of solar water pumps. Our headquarters are in the UK and our factory is in India. We have a network of 29 distributors.

We design and sell solar-powered irrigation pumps to smallholder farmers, who are generally very low-income, trying to make a living, and on the frontline of climate change. They heavily rely on changing rainfall patterns but have no shortage of sunshine, so solar pumps offer them a great solution to get water to their crops and avoid hours of labour. They also save money that would have been used to buy expensive, dirty fuel for traditional pumps.

Image: Futurepump/IWMI and www.jeffreymwalcott.com

How did you make the decision to start manufacturing in India?

We started manufacturing there, initially through vendors who were knowledgeable and competent, with whom we were able to build a great relationship that enabled us to work efficiently and effectively. Two years ago we built on a new site with 2 acres of land near Rajkot, Gujarat State. This brand new factory, designed specifically for our manufacturing needs, has allowed us to expand our production capabilities as well as develop and test new products in-house.

From a strategic point of view, the choice makes sense because we are close to Western ports that enable us to ship to Africa easily.

How is your distribution and sales network set up?

We have approximately one distributor per country, and when we have more than one, we encourage them to work together. They come to us spontaneously but we also go and look for them in certain key areas, where we identify market gaps. They need to be the right partner in an area with enough sunshine and small-scale farmers, as well as water sources nearby. We also look at fuel pump sales to identify demand.

Our sales model is different in each country, based on the distributor’s knowledge of the market: some are cash, some finance, some PAYGo. As I mentioned, we sell to people who are starting to create a business because, at a cost of approximately 600 dollars, payback times only make sense as a substitute for fuel pumps or when farmers want to expand their production.

We started offering a 10-year warranty a year ago and we use this timeframe to calculate how the cost of our pump compares to a petrol/diesel one. Petrol pumps generally last around  3 years, and they require frequent maintenance over this period. If you add to these costs the fuel, our machines cost 4 times less money over this period of time.

Image: Futurepump

When did you start selling commercially?

The company was created in 2012 and we initially focused on field testing and individual sales within a clustered region for market testing purposes. We then started bulk commercial sales in 2016 when we onboarded our first country distributor. The inventor of the pump is from the Netherlands and his initial design was for a steam-powered pump as at the time this was the cheapest way to use solar to pump water. However, about 10 years ago photovoltaic panels dropped in price and became viable for even low-income customers. This enabled us to integrate them into the design making a more efficient, easier to use and practicable design.

What are your main challenges?

Right now, our main challenge is the price of raw materials, prices of some of our main parts seem to be continuously rising. This is leading us to have to consider redesigning parts and further slimming down the designs to remove any unnecessary parts. Shipping was also a huge challenge during the pandemic as prices skyrocketed and the availability of boats was also poor. We are still feeling some of the effects of this now.

One of our most interesting challenges which I think is common across many businesses is deciding when a product is ready to go from the research and development phase to manufacturing commercial volume. You can spend years ‘perfecting’ a product in a lab only to find out that it doesn’t work in the field – there is a lot of value in getting this decision-making process right.

Image: Futurepump

Economy of scale and increased volume of sales allow us to bring down costs as we can have more cost-effective arrangements with component vendors but products have to be already at a stage where they won’t be going through many changes. It’s difficult to innovate and scale manufacturing at the same time.

Managing cash flow and financing is also a challenge. We sell to distributors by the hundreds: so there is a continuous task of working out how much stock to have in inventory and how much to produce in the moment so that we can meet an order when we receive it. We don’t want stock sitting around for too long in case the pump packing deteriorates if they are stored too long, especially when the monsoon rains hit our factory!

What do you think has been your impact within the energy access space?

I think that people didn’t really know about solar water pumps when we started, there certainly wasn’t the competition in the market like there is today. We have had a big role in market education for efficient irrigation, helping people understand you can save and make money with renewables. Now there are many more solar water companies in the market, which proves the need is out there and there is a demand for the product.

What we did a year ago with our 10-year warranty is show that renewable tech can be used and fixed in the field; it shouldn’t be thrown away. We also present the challenge to the industry to match that.

Cheaper products can be tempting but our point of view is that products should be of high-quality and built to last and be sustainable over time.

Image: Futurepump

How do you think GOGLA has supported you and the sector?

One of the highlights for us was the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo from 2020. Events are great to bring us together and connect with our distributors as well in one space.

We also fill out the sales data every 6 months and we leverage it for fundraising.

Additionally, we share stories of impact with GOGLA so that they can reach a bigger audience and go further.

What does the future look like for your company?

We want to go into new countries with new distributors, produce more, be more efficient and more accessible.  We have a lot on our plate!

What would you like to see happen in the sector?

We think subsidies at the manufacturing level would really drive down the cost for the final user and make a big impact.

From a tech perspective, flexible solar panels would allow us to get more energy for less money.

In terms of climate impact, it would be nice to be able to have a framework to enable us to report on diesel replacement and carbon from a data-backed perspective and not so based on individual cases.

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