Hydroponic Farming : A Technology Africa Needs to Embrace.
Agriculture is one of the top offenders when it comes to environmental degradation, and farming is responsible for consuming bout 70% of the world’s fresh water, and unfortunately, it’s estimated that 60% of that water is being lost to leaky irrigation systems and other mishaps in the supply line.
SO, A new technological approach in growing crops is in demand And don’t worry we have the solution!
So, I am going to wrap up this panel discussion with a call to action for increased hydroponic farming in Africa.
In simple terms for anyone who isn’t already familiar, hydroponics is water-based method for growing plants without soil.
For a mental image, this could be trays of plants with water running beneath, or a drip-based system where the water would be delivered by hose.
While this may seem like a process that uses MORE water, it’s actually quite the opposite, hydroponic systems actually use 90% less water than contemporary agriculture.
There are many different types of systems that can be used just depending on the scale of production or the type of plant that you may be trying to produce.
And also hydroponics may FEEL new but the technology is actually older than people may believe! The concept of soil free gardening has been around for THOUSADS of years.
We know from Marco Polo’s writings that he witnessed “floating gardens” while visiting China in the late 13th century, even though scientists didn’t start formally experimenting with soil-less gardening until around the 1930’s.
And, according to a 1938 Time magazine article, one of the first commercial uses of hydroponics occurred due to that ground-breaking agricultural research taking place at Berkeley.
So, Tanks of mineralized water were used to grow beans, tomatoes, and vegetables on a small piece of land in the Pacific Ocean.
This island was used as a refueling stop for Pan Am Airways, and the food grown there was used to feed the airline's staff and crew.
Since then this technique has continuously proven to be more economical and sustainable than contemporary farming.
The benefits to using Hydroponic systems are wide reaching.
So, the growth rate on a hydroponic plant is 30-50 percent faster than a soil plant grown under the same conditions.
Plus, the yield or production of the plant is also greater.
So, scientists believe that there are several reasons for the drastic differences in production between hydroponic and contemporary soilbased farming.
For starters there is extra oxygen in the hydroponic mediums which helps to stimulate the plant’s root growth.
That’s important because plants with extra oxygen in their root systems can actually absorb nutrients faster.
And in a hydroponic system those nutrients are mixed with the water and sent directly to the root system.
This means that the plant doesn’t have to search for the nutrients that it requires for growth.
Those nutrients are being delivered directly to the plant several times per day and then the plant can use that saved energy to grow faster and to produce more fruit.
Another benefit is that it takes less space, especially when using vertical pipes which can extend upward several meters or more, which is a system that’s best suited for cities or anywhere that land is expensive, and you’re trying to maximize a yield.
On top of all of that, growing times are often greatly reduced, in some cases from 2 months to 1 month, and this allows for faster market turnarounds and earlier returns just in general.
What we are really getting back beyond food, is the advantage of time.
Most set-ups are self-for filling, meaning they require minimal maintenance, and this means that women—who usually maintain the traditional role of managing a garden—could maintain a system with little effort, freeing their time up for other financial or family demands.
Also, hydroponic farming also offers several benefits to our planet’s physical environments.
Besides just using considerably less water than soil-based farming, because the systems don’t use topsoil, that means erosion isn't an issue any longer.
And if current agricultural trends continue to erode topsoil and waste water, hydroponics may be our only solution soon.
Plus, a final bonus is that hydroponic plants also have fewer problems with bug infestations, funguses and disease.
So, there is an organization called “Hydroponics Africa” that actually sells these types of systems.
Check them out, simple name, Hydroponics Africa.
For some financial perspective the cost of their systems can range from $100 to $5,000, but even the smaller systems can feed a family of 5 to 8 members easily.
The company also has arrangements at several banks to help give small loans to growers for about 20% down.
The owner stated that most families can pay off their loans in about 8 months.
Now, if we are considering larger scales of production obviously those financial demands are going to increase exponentially.
For example, a vertical farm capable of growing 1 million kilos of produce a year can cost around $80-$100 million dollars.
That being said, I’m very proud to have been born and raised in New Jersey, home to Aero Farms, which just happens to be the world’s largest vertical farm!
So, they use less than 1% of the land required by conventional growing to achieve the same production by volume.
This means they are over 390 times more land efficient than field-based farming plus they have around 30 harvests per year!
Other counties such as Japan, Singapore, Italy and Brazil have also built vertical farms.
And as the investments continue, vertical farming is expected to be valued at almost 6 billion US$ by 2022.
Africa is facing similar trends that may demand it consider vertical farms.
Firstly, it’s urbanizing at a fast rate, and by 2025 more than 70% of its population is expected to live in cities.
So, obviously we need to feed these people.
Secondly, many of these urban consumers are demanding high quality, pesticide free food.
When it comes to barriers, beyond money, when considering Africa specifically-
Access to reliable and consistent energy is a large barrier.
Many African cities frequently experience power cuts and this could prove to be a big challenge for innovators wanting to venture in vertical farming business.
So, faced with these challenges, entrepreneurs thinking of venturing into vertical farming in Africa will need to put in more creativity and innovation into solar designs and the use of local building materials.
I believe that now is the time for African entrepreneurs and innovators to invest in hydroponics.
Feeding Africa’s rapidly growing urban population will continue to be a daunting challenge, but vertical farming – and its variations – is one of the most innovative approaches to grow fresh, healthy, nutritious and pesticide-free food for consumers.
And also, I believe strongly that every school should be incorporating a small-scale hydroponic garden to their premises, if not for educational and sustenance purposes, but for an opportunity to generate income for the school as well.
And at one-point Seyi and I were discussing how we believe that this type of farming could actually be a tool for positive social change.
He was telling me about the issue of the “Fulani” cattle herders in Nigeria who have been forced to branch out of their normal territories due to drought, and have become abusive towards southern farms.
So, this causes cultural tensions between not only feuding farmers but with local police as well, who are usually funding the herders in the first place.
And this situation could potentially be navigated by drastically changing the way we interact with the land, or more specifically without the land.
Quite frankly the benefits are so wide reaching it’s shocking that the world hasn’t completely abandoned regular farming.
I cannot imagine a future other than a hydroponic one!
Besides a future that also incorporates aquaponics but that’s a discussion for another day!
Author: Morgan Truncale.