Half an hour away from Nairobi’s city center, a team of entrepreneurs is growing vegetables, fruit and fodder on vertical fields. What looks like a project for a space station could be the future of agriculture in Africa.
The model farm of Hydroponics Africa in the northwest of Nairobi does look a bit futuristic. Light grey plastic tubes, up to seven on top of each other, stretch across the site. Plants are sprouting, spinach in particular, but also other greenery. On the opposite side, aluminum plates are stacked on a shelf that has a strong resemblance with baking sheets, but with grass. So this is what modern agriculture looks like – agriculture that flourishes without land, or at least without arable land. It sounds a bit absurd, but it is an age-old idea that the small company from Kenya has adapted to African conditions.
Hydroponics is the name of the process in which plants grow not in soil but in water. Just like the floating gardens in China that Marco Polo once reported on. Or the hanging gardens of Babylon more than two and a half thousand years ago, if they existed. Myth or not: hydroponics is old. Nevertheless, it has just recently been rediscovered and made usable in the last few decades.
“You know, hydroponics was not designed for an African context,” says Hydroponics Africa founder and CEO Dr. Peter Chege. “So, we adapted the technique to Africa.” To the climate, to the culture, to the plants that are grown. And above all, to the finances.
The systems are usually expensive. The materials cost a lot of money, and so does the technology to operate them. Hardly anyone has much money in agriculture in Africa, so Chege and his team looked to locally buy everything needed for their hydroponic system. Nothing has to be procured laboriously or expensively from far away or even from abroad. That’s how they came up with the pipes and the aluminum sheets. Hydroponics Africa can source all of these materials in the immediate area for an affordable price. “After only six months, the average smallholder farmer in Africa breaks even on the investment,” explains Hydroponics’ agronomist Leah Waweru.
Broken soils, water shortages, pests: climate change makes farming unprofitable in many places
As with many innovations in agriculture, climate change is crucial to the development of African hydroponics. Water shortage is a serious problem for the world’s smallholder farmers. In Africa as well, where eight out of ten farmers cultivate less than two hectares of land. Not enough to survive – also because soil erosion, overfertilization and disputed land rights exacerbate the problem. Hunger and poverty are the consequences.
Soil erosion, overfertilization and soil pests are not a problem when farming without soil. Above all, however, vertical hydroponics, which is most often seen on the model farm, saves on two important things at once: land and water. In a very small space, fruit, vegetables and animal feed can be grown on top of each other instead or side by side. An area of a good 50 square meters provides up to 500 kilos of fodder for the cattle per week. And it is not only farmers who benefit. All over rural Kenya, people grow vegetables and fruit for daily use and keep a few goats or chickens. Like nurse Sarah Nyantui, who grows a little of this and a little of that on her small plot. “As you can see, my compound is small,” she says. There is not much room to grow here, but she has to take care of her children. In the past, she sometimes didn’t manage to water her garden after work – not good for the plants. And today? With the Hydroponics system, she simply grows on top of each other and the system waters itself. Sarah now harvests so much spinach, onions, beetroot and coriander that she can even sell her surpluses.
A patented nutrient solution ensures rich harvests
Of course, Sarah’s plants also need nutrients – she buys them directly from Hydroponics Africa. The company has patented a nutrient solution that is mixed with the water and circulated through the pipes. The system is economical because the water neither evaporates nor seeps into the soil. From time to time, new nutrients are added so that the plants are always sufficiently supplied. It is still smallholder farmers or self-sufficient households who are living the future of agriculture in the north of Nairobi. But Hydroponics is already planning the next step: growth.
Supported by the Water and Energy for Food Program of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the EU, the Dutch and Swedish governments, and the US development agency USAID, the program promotes the development and dissemination of innovative and economic solutions to the use of climate-friendly, energy-efficient and water-saving technologies and innovations.
With this support, CEO Chege and his team want to expand their hydroponic system, adapt it to commercial agriculture and also for other countries, especially those where there is neither water nor nutrient-rich soil.
This still requires a bit of work. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), which administers the Water and Energy for Food program on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), is supporting the Kenyan company with technical expertise and financial resources. How and where can partners be found in Zimbabwe, for example? Or, how do you register a company there? Training for future employees and farmers in another country must also be organized. All these challenges can be solved. There is only one problem that will keep Chege busy for a while: Products from hydroponic cultivation are climate and environmentally friendly and do not require chemical additives. But they are not allowed to be called organic food. According to organic regulations, organic plants must primarily obtain their nourishment from the soil ecosystem. “But here you are not using soil,” sighs Chege. The crop still grows without chemicals, environmentally friendly and with little water. There is still a lot to be discussed. Fortunately, this does not change the future viability of hydroponics in Africa.
Watch the video to learn more about innovator Hydroponics!
WE4F Contact Person:
Kilian Blumenthal, Advisor in the WE4F East Africa Hub based in Nairobi, Kenya
Kilian holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Engineering of the HAW Hamburg and a M.Sc. in Agricultural Sciences in the Tropics and Subtropics of the University of Hohenheim. His academic research focused on Solar Water Pumping Systems in Bolivia and the Potential Use of Solar Energy in the Maize Value Chain in Benin. He has done numerous trainings on the SPIS Toolbox and gained experience during longer stays in South America and Sub Saharan Africa.