A solar and lead battery-powered tractor, that is being developed as a farming solution for Africa, was named a semifinalist for the Milken–Motsepe Prize in Green Energy. The competition rewards projects who expand access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity in Africa.
AfTrak or Africa Tractor, is a prototype program funded by Innovate UK as part of its Energy Catalyst Round 9. The program was one of 20 teams selected to advance to the Semifinalist Round for a competition by the Milken Institute and the Motsepe Foundation. Semifinalists receive $20,000 for the continued development and testing of their designs, as well as complimentary access to a Stanford Online course to help build their businesses.
AfTrak was selected from over 160 entrants around the world, in over 36 countries.
This potentially revolutionary tractor design, featuring lead batteries, is an African farming project created in collaboration between the Consortium for Battery Innovation (CBI), UK- & Malawi-based charity Tiyeni, and Loughborough University.
Across large areas of Malawi, under the few inches of topsoil, there is a heavily compacted layer of rock-hard earth through which plants cannot penetrate. Tiyeni has created an innovative agricultural method called Deep Bed Farming (DBF). The tractor, being developed at Loughborough University, will be a low-cost, hand-operated, solution for farming in the difficult soil.
The proposed AfTrak project is a micro electric tractor capable of mechanizing land preparation in line with Tiyeni’s Deep Bed Farming to prepare soil to a depth of 400mm.
For this program, AfTrak aims to provide an affordable green energy solution in sub-Saharan Africa, utilize a solar array and lead battery system to power micro electric tractors for Deep Bed Farming, and create a self-sustaining model for decentralized energy access.
An independent panel of expert judges determined the 20 teams receiving funding. Moving forward in the competition involves semifinalist teams demonstrating the effectiveness of their ideas in field tests.
They will be evaluated for their ability to:
After the Semifinalist Round, judges will select five finalist teams to conduct another round of field tests in Africa. Then in May 2024, the judges will award a $1 million Grand Prize. A Runner-Up Prize of $250,000 will also be awarded.
The Milken Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank focused on accelerating measurable progress. They bring together the best ideas and innovative resourcing to develop blueprints for tackling critical global issues.
The Milken–Motsepe Innovation Prize program is a series of multiyear, multimillion-dollar innovation competitions for technological solutions that accelerate progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One of the two innovation competitions in the program, the Milken–Motsepe Prize in Green Energy, aims to expand access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity in Africa as an essential factor in achieving long-term economic growth and shared prosperity. The competition advances progress toward SDG 7 (ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all).
The semi-finalists were announced on June 6, 2023.
NOTE: AfTrak is the second bid application to be awarded to CBI in the past year after LoCEL-H2, a sustainable microgrid project using lead batteries and a novel, lead-battery-enabled funded by the European Commission under the Horizon Europe program.
Innovate UK Funding Malawi Trial of Low-Cost Tractor Featuring Lead Batteries and Solar Power for Deep Bed Farming
[LONDON, 20 April, 2023] AfTrak or Africa Tractor that will use solar and lead batteries, is both a prototype program and £270k project funded by Innovate UK as part of its Energy Catalyst Round 9 program, which officially kicked off in London today.
Innovate UK will fund a prototype and a sustainable business plan for a potentially revolutionary tractor design, featuring lead batteries. The UK program, which invests in innovative business ideas across all sectors, will support an African farming project created in collaboration between the Consortium for Battery Innovation (CBI), UK- & Malawi-based charity Tiyeni, and Loughborough University.
“The kick-off event exceeded expectations. We found it extremely valuable to network, not only with the Energy Catalyst team, but also with other innovators and stakeholders,” said AfTrak’s Project Manager, Dr. Carl Telford, a CBI’s senior research and innovation manager.
Across large areas of Malawi, under the few inches of topsoil, there is a heavily compacted layer of rock-hard earth through which plants cannot penetrate. Tiyeni has created an innovative agricultural method called Deep Bed Farming (DBF) through their extensive business experience and a network of agricultural advisers. The tractor, being developed at Loughborough University, will be a low-cost, hand-operated, solution for farming in this difficult soil.
Dr. Jonathan Wilson, a specialist in systems and mechanical engineering and leader of the Loughborough team notes, “We have a unique opportunity to take Tiyeni’s unique Deep Bed Farming technique and add Loughborough’s engineering & mechanization know-how to dramatically decrease upfront labor requirements.”
The proposed AfTrak system is a micro electric tractor capable of mechanizing land preparation in line with Tiyeni’s Deep Bed Farming to prepare the soil to a depth of 400mm.
Over 800 million people have no reliable access to electricity, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, and rural regions of Asia. AfTrak also provides power for agricultural applications such as water irrigation and domestic applications such as phone charging, electric cooking, and lighting.
The AfTrak tractor will be trialed in Malawi by the Tiyeni team, with a focus on enabling an important agricultural technique, Deep Bed Farming.
Tiyeni’s Country Director, Isaac Chavula comments, “This is a breakthrough. Finally, I can see a solution through the AfTrak tractors to break the hardpan soil that has long challenged farmers. By adopting the Deep Bed Farming technique, farmers can now envision relief with the AfTrak tractors.”
In this initiative, AfTrak aims to:
Tiyeni Executive Director Alex Gerard added, “I am so excited that Innovate UK has funded our project to accelerate the end of food insecurity in Malawi. Combining our innovative Deep Bed Farming method with a sustainable solar tractor, we could speed up the support for millions of small-holder farmers.”
Telford added, “This is a perfect application and new opportunity area for utilizing lead batteries. Moreover, the anticipated outcomes are valuable. It’s an exciting time for renewable energy and lead battery storage, as this mechanization of the Deep Bed Farming technique could be a game changer.”
About Consortium for Battery Innovation
The Consortium for Battery Innovation (CBI) is the world’s only global pre-competitive research organization funding research into lead batteries for energy storage, motive, and automotive applications. For more than 25 years, with its global membership of battery manufacturers, industry suppliers, research institutes, and universities, CBI has delivered cutting-edge research pushing the boundaries of innovation in lead battery technology, setting the standard for advanced lead batteries and the next generation of energy storage. For more information, visit our website: batteryinnovation.org
AfTrak is the second bid application to be awarded to CBI in the past year after LoCEL-H2, a sustainable microgrid project using lead batteries and a novel, lead-battery-enabled funded by the European Commission under the Horizon Europe program.
About Loughborough University (LU)
The Wolfson School of Mechanical Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering is one of the biggest engineering schools of their kind in the UK with a research portfolio of around £52m. CREST (Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology) has a cohort of around 60 academics, researchers, and Ph.D. students and a good range of laboratory facilities for prototype manufacture and testing.
About Tiyeni UK (TU)
A UK based NGO who have funded the development of Deep Bed Farming (DBF) as a response to extreme food poverty within Malawi. The organization has grown year on year as support and demand for DBF has increased. Alex Gerard was appointed as a full-time Executive Director in 2021. Tiyeni’s board has extensive business experience and a network of agricultural advisers who have contributed to the development of DBF. Farmers adopting DBF can double their agricultural yields and all but eliminate requirements for expensive and environmentally damaging imported fertilizers.
Tiyeni Malawi (TM) is a Malawian company, funded by Tiyeni UK and operated at arm's length by a Malawian team, and led by an experienced Country Director, Isaac Monjo Chavula. Tiyeni continues to grow in size as DBF spreads across the country – especially since Malawi government approval. Historically the organization has focused on agriculture but is now diversifying into water management and carbon credits. Tiyeni is focused on ensuring all farmers in Malawi have access to training in DBF either through government extension workers, other NGOs, or through direct training for Tiyeni. The team is also developing the business model for smallholder deep bed farmers so they can leverage the other DBF benefits of carbon sequestration and water management.