Are vertical gardens the future of farming in Africa?


Are vertical gardens the future of farming in Africa?
Fred Kimani and Fred Muthiga inspecting herb instalments of the vertical gardens

By Stella Nasambu, BBC

“Land capital is so high, and yet what farmers can plant on the ground is so little”. Farmers may yet find a solution above ground, with tower gardens. That is if cousins and proprietors of Vertical Gardens, an alternative farming solutions company have any say in the matter.

Fred Muithiga and Fred Kimani came together in 2012 after they perceived a gap in the market for farmers who could not afford vast tracts of land, the duo put in $120 of starting capital and soon the business grew. However, the pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise as more customers from urban areas began to trickle in. according to Fred Muthaiga “Fast forward to 2020, when Corona happened. We saw an influx of people grow their own food “

Vertical Gardens offers a variety of services such as vertical garden system, A crate system going for anywhere between $180 to $50. Tower gardens and the Pouch systems are also available for anywhere from $130 to $ 4 , the average rate in Kenya.

According to UN  Department of Economic and Social Affairs , by 2050, more than 680 % of the the global  population will live in cities. These urban customers will need high quality pesticide -free food but despite this projection, the growth in the industry remains low. This may well be the case with many of the vertical garden customers asking for installation on their balconies “We provided solutions that enabled our customers to grow their own food…in a safe and hygienic way”

What’s happening with the rest of Africa?

There may be a demand for hydroponics as a service but what does it really take set up a working system.

Huge barriers face anyone looking to go down the vertical farming here are quite a few barriers such as huge initial investment, unreliable frequent power cuts and let’s not talk about the enormous cost of setting up an alternative power source system.

African governments have made a push for hydroponics among other next generation methods of farming to attracts its youth population to provide labour for its agricultural market. According to a 2021 report by the International Labour Organization , the continent’s labour force has increased markedly in size during the same period, from 302.1 million in 2000 to 489.7 million in 2019 and is projected to reach 518 million by 2021 and governments are bent on making agriculture sexy again.

In Uganda for example, the Makerere University Agricultural Research Institute in Kabanyolo now hosts demonstration of agricultural technologies including the hydroponics, that the youth and farmers can learn from.

Mr. Papius Tumusingize heads the section on hydroponic systems and greenhouses management which trains youth in collaboration with the Learn As You Earn Programme of the Consortium for University Responsiveness to AgribusineFinal ss Development (CURAD) which is an agribusiness incubator based at the Institute.

But Hydroponics is yet to take off in Uganda where rich arable land is available for farming and many still prefer traditional methods of farming.

Back in Tanzania, hydroponics has seen some more progress in comparison to East- African counterparts. 47-year-old Mwamy Mlangwa has launched a hydroponics farm under her company Mwamy Green Veggies the first of its kind in the east African nation. Mwamy started the business 4 years, acquiring the technology in Israel, and is now selling pesticide free vegetables to hotels, supermarkets and even international airlines. Whether this will be the case for other East African countries remains to be seen.

In Zambia , the government and the World Food Programme is using hydroponics to boost school meals in a country . The country  18 million people is facing a food security crisis brought on by extreme weather due to climate change.

The government has set up as recently as April of 2021, 23 green houses in schools to help pilot hydroponics as the new wave of agricultural tech. Training will be made available to parents, teachers and the students according the World Food Programme’s website.

Each green house will grow atleast 2,000 plants, an estimated 1,300 kg of much needed vegetables per month

Is vertical farming needed in Kenya

Vertical gardens, tower garden systems used to grow kale and other vegetables. PHOTO| COURTESY

 The Food and Agriculture Organization says. Yes. After all Agriculture contributes 26% of the country’s GDP and another 27% via links to other sectors. It also employs 40 % of the total Kenyan population. The sector has problems. Many problems.

For example, even with such a large contribution working to grow the economy, more needs to be done on the ground. The report states that many farmers are reliant on rain-fed farming systems and are being pushed into dryer more marginal areas making them vulnerable to drought. Climate change is clearly to blame. These problems are linked to even bigger problems like food insecurity, pastoralist conflict and reliance on food aid.

The USAID also says in  its 2021 report that agricultural productivity in Kenya has gradually stagnated in recent years, despite continuous population growth.  Covid has made things that much worse, with higher retail prices and reduced incomings forcing a large number of households to cut down on both the quality and quantity of food consumption. This has a devastating effect on farmers and food producers who face unprecedented losses of perishable and nutritious produce as overall consumption shifts towards cheaper staples.

Only 20 percent of Kenyan land is suitable for farming and in these areas maximum yields have not been achieved, leaving considerable potential for increases in productivity. Vertical gardens may just be the solution to averting this growing crisis.

Vertical Gardening Fact box

A pouch system installation on a wall for the more fragile produce like strawberries and fragrant herbs. PHOTO| COURTESY

Wondering why you should get into hydroponics?

Hydroponics uses alternatives mediums to soil eliminating the usual weed problems. Less weeds, more yield!

Hydroponics allows one to one to grow up to four times the number of plants.

Once can raise fish and plants in the same system. Now you don’t just have one business but two and double the profit!

What needs to be done to support hydroponics in Africa?

 Although those that may want to venture into vertical gardening are great. There is hope for young African farmers. African government are gaining more and more support from bodies like The World Bank among other financial institutions to improve the farming sector as whole.

This partnerships between African government have laid emphasis on improving water infrastructure, developing capacity of water user association delivery input, more soil testing, encouraging take up of crop insurance and credit extensions advice and multi-market linkages.

Although the ultimate desire has always been to get money into farmer’s pockets and equipment into the right hands, including cash transfers, seed and fodder packages and other socio-economic safety nets. Many farmers may never see the trickle-down effect due to the documented run-away corruption by many governments across the continent.

But whether hydroponics takes off for Africa youth and young farmers in the future, only time will tell.

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