Crises are opportunities. And crises in countries where growth has been stunted for decades, and has largely benefited a narrow segment of society, can create an opening for transformative reforms that creates opportunities for the many, not just the few. As Pakistan undergoes what is perhaps the most serious crisis the country has faced since 1971, it is easy to become cynical about the country’s prospects. But such cynicism, while warranted in many ways, is not productive.

Given Pakistan’s developmental trajectory, the size of its population, and the scale of the challenges confronting the country, it is important for citizens to think about how emerging technologies and innovations can help society leapfrog ahead. The implementation of these technology-led solutions is even more important given the climate crisis confronting the country. Most importantly, however, these solutions are a major opportunity. Compared to countries with significant investments in legacy infrastructure, Pakistan is more of a blank slate, which means that emerging solutions can not only help resolve major problems, but do so in an accelerated fashion given the lack of legacy infrastructure that would otherwise stall progress.

Two key technological trends perhaps carry the most potential: distributed renewable energy and breakthroughs in what is broadly defined as agtech. Both trends have been around for a while, but it is only in recent years that exponential progress in a cost effective manner has become possible. These technologies in particular offer substantial benefits to both rural communities and agricultural sectors, especially in Global South economies.

This article explores the potential of distributed solar to expand access to electricity in Pakistan, while highlighting how agricultural innovations, starting with expansion of drip irrigation, can enhance water efficiency and boost crop yields. The combined impact of these innovations promises to revolutionize farming practices, mitigate environmental challenges, and drive economic prosperity across the length and breadth of Pakistan.

Access to reliable and affordable electricity is a fundamental driver of development, yet many rural communities in countries like Pakistan still lack access to the power grid. In addition, poor choices made over the years and lack of reforms in the electricity sector has meant that the cost of power is extremely high – and continues to go up with each round of currency devaluation. As a result, per capita electricity generation has barely changed in the last five years, highlighting that human development has stalled in the country – as countries develop, per capita generation of electricity increases exponentially.

Distributed solar provides a solution, especially as the cost of solar energy production comes down significantly. These solutions are already being implemented in rural parts of Pakistan – the recent cyclone that hit Sindh’s coast led policymakers to ask citizens to secure their solar panels ahead of the storm. But there is a lot that can be done to further accelerate this progress, providing cheap, clean energy to citizens while also reducing the burden on an inefficient, legacy grid ecosystem that requires tens of billions of dollars in additional investment.

Expanding access to such solutions can not only provide access to cheap electricity to households, but it can also improve productivity in rural Pakistan, birthing small-scale businesses and microenterprises that can create jobs across the country. In addition, if such solutions are implemented in ways that expand access to credit, then we can expect an expansion in financial inclusion, leading to positive externalities that incentivize formalization of the economy and create the necessary data flows that convince financial institutions to provide credit to previously unbanked populations.

At a macro level, distributed solar systems can help alleviate the burden of expensive fossil fuel imports and reduce the cost of electricity for households. By generating clean energy locally, communities can break free from the volatility of global fuel prices, while enjoying long-term savings on their energy bills. According to the World Bank, distributed solar can reduce the cost of electricity by up to 50%, enabling households to allocate saved funds towards education, healthcare, and other essential needs.

Distributed solar expansion must also be accompanied by transformative investments in the country’s agriculture sector. Agriculture accounts for a significant portion of water usage in Pakistan and optimizing water resources is crucial for sustainable food production. Drip irrigation, an innovative agricultural practice, offers a solution by precisely delivering water directly to plant roots, minimizing wastage and enhancing water efficiency.

Drip irrigation systems bring multiple advantages to farmers. Firstly, they can reduce water consumption by up to 50% compared to traditional irrigation methods, such as flooding, which is still the most common way of irrigating farms in Pakistan. Intense heat waves, growing population, and shifting monsoon patterns are exacerbating the water scarcity challenge in Pakistan. However, the country still has enough water resources to meet the needs of a growing population that needs access to cheap foods.

Optimizing water utilization, especially through drip irrigation across farms, can not only optimize water usage but also improve productivity on farms. By providing water and nutrients directly to the roots, plants experience less stress and receive adequate hydration, resulting in healthier growth and improved productivity. Studies have shown that drip irrigation can boost crop yields by 20-50% while reducing the occurrence of diseases and weeds.

Additionally, drip irrigation reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers. With precise water delivery, these systems prevent excess water runoff, which carries agrochemicals into nearby water bodies, leading to environmental degradation. By minimizing chemical usage, drip irrigation promotes ecological balance and safeguards water resources.

Over the last few decades, governments have subsidized electricity – generated inefficiently through imported fuels – for pumping water from underground aquifers through tube wells. This has led to suboptimal use of expensive imported energy and scarce water resources. While the recent proposal in the 2023-24 budget for converting tube wells to solar energy is a step in the right direction, policymakers must rapidly try and shift farmers away from tube wells to meet their water needs. Supporting farmers adopt distributed solar and drip irrigation can help boost profitability and output across farms. Linking these interventions to financial inclusion goals can birth a self-reinforcing cycle that helps rural communities gain access to other modern technologies, such as automated sensors, weather monitoring technologies, and cold storage solutions. All of these in sync can transform rural Pakistan and rapidly accelerate economic and human development across the country.

The beauty of these technologies is that they have already been deployed at scale around the world. Countries like Israel, India, and the United Arab Emirates are already investing heavily in such projects, meaning that the blueprints are already there. Reallocating taxpayer resources away from inefficient systems, such as power subsidies for tube wells, can generate an economic multiplier in a very short period of time.

But citizens need not wait for the state to get its act together. Expensive power is already incentivizing citizens to adopt rooftop solar. Some innovative farmers are experimenting with agtech solutions to boost yields and profits. Information about how to adopt these technologies is easily available on the internet, and Pakistan’s youthful population ought to think about how it can be entrepreneurial and create ventures that utilize these technologies and take advantage of the market opportunity.

The final hurdle, however, is around provision of financing. This is where financial institutions, investors, and academia must come together – educating citizens about how to develop barebones business plans and linking this to funding streams on the private sector side can unleash a revolution. The question then is: can Pakistanis resist cynicism in a collapsing economy and leverage emerging technologies to transform their communities?

Uzair Younus is the director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Councils South Asia Center. He also is the Vice President at The Asia Group, where he advises global companies on developing and executing strategies to align their business strategy with public good needs across South Asia. He supports companies in developing strategic initiatives and communications strategies to credibly increase their reputation in key markets.

woman avatar