Hydroponic Farming Benefitting Communities in Arid Northern Kenya

The hydroponic system at the institute.

Communities in Northern Kenya face challenging conditions where water is scarce and climate change effects exacerbate such challenges. In October 2020, the Water and Energy for Food’s East Africa Regional Innovation Hub established a partnership with the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), building on its knowledge of the region, its existing research infrastructure, and engagement with local communities. The project emerged from the goal to improve access to water and energy in the arid part of Northern Kenya, and to promote local entrepreneurship of hydroponic vegetable farmers.

The partnership between WE4F and TBI revolves around the development of an innovative solar powered reverse osmosis (RO) system and the promotion and expansion of hydroponic farming to benefit the local community, especially people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. A solar powered RO can produce up to 20,000 liters of water per day and thus has a strong potential to improve access to water for local communities. At the same time, hydroponic farming enhances water efficiency in crop production and improves food security in the region, also by ensuring that crops are covered and safe from pests, a factor necessary to take into consideration as East Africa has been recently facing a locust plague. As for improving economic opportunities for local youth and women, the project aspires to encourage female and youth entrepreneurship to bridge together the advantages of technical innovations, information and communications technologies (ICTs) and agriculture.

While a solar powered RO is a new field of expertise for both WE4F and TBI, the hydroponic farming component leverages TBI’s experience in this field and the knowledge of local resource availability and environmental constraints. TBI is an international, multidisciplinary organization, supporting scientific research with the mission to preserve the national and world heritage found in the Lake Turkana region, considered the cradle of humankind. The institute is well integrated in this remote region and has built a permanent research infrastructure close to Ileret. The TBI is currently working to set up the project’s logistics and procurement. A small core team, including staff at the TBI’s Ileret facility, will be supplemented and supported by the expertise and experience of the broader TBI team.

The TBI team: Shadrack Arthur, Kilian Blumenthal, Acacia Leakey, Peter Baryo (from top left to bottom right)

The team combines deep and the first-hand knowledge of the local context, experience of driving community engagement and extensive technical expertise. For instance, Peter Baryo, responsible for community liaison, was born in Ileret and has been actively involved in community development projects in this area before joining the team. Shadrack Arthur, who cultivates nutritious vegetables in this arid landscape and shares these skills with local trainees, not only brings in his extensive expertise in agriculture, and particularly in hydroponic farm management, but also an experience in community engagement and outreach, which is crucial while guiding local trainees through their own farming process. Acacia Leakey, who oversees the planning and implementation of the project, grew up on a farm in Nakuru and, in her own words, loves “getting her hands dirty”. And finally, Kilian Blumenthal represents the WE4F East Africa RIH and supports the implementation of the project from Nairobi, where the Hub is based. He complements the team with his expertise in the use of renewable energy in agricultural processes. Inspired by the project, he even constructed a little experimental hydroponic system in his garden and was excited to yield his first harvest of tomatoes and chilis.

The project has had a smooth start and has more to offer. The experience gained in Ileret could contribute to stronger food security in other regions throughout Kenya and East Africa that have similar arid and semi-arid conditions and create synergies with other WE4F-supported innovations that leverage the potential of climate-friendly, water- and energy-efficient technologies in the region.