In Kenya, strange-looking small pipes—some vertical, others horizontal—have leafy vegetables protruding from holes with trickles of water flowing through. This simple set-up has the potential to feed an urbanizing Africa and the rest of the world.
It’s called hydroponics, and Peter Chege is the Pied Piper and the ambassador extraordinaire for the technology in poverty-plagued areas of the world. He is CEO and founder of Hydroponics Africa Limited. Chege is an example of a growing class of agriculture entrepreneurs in Africa and elsewhere who see their mission as not just turning a profit, but also performing a needed social function, feeding the multitudes.
To put it succinctly, Chege, an agricultural chemist, has a lofty mission: He wants to “solve the food crisis in Africa” which is difficult due to often poor farming conditions and a growing influx of refugees. So, imagine if you will, a garden that is no garden at all, but yet produces bountiful food without one seed put in the earth. This is accomplished simply by nutrients added to water which are recycled through pipes with holes for plants to peak out and be nourished by nine hours a day of African sun.
“Our vision is to feed all of Africa’s people through a portfolio of sustainable hydroponic farming methods, creating enduring value and opportunities for all,” he said. Thus far, he is succeeding—even exporting to other countries.
Why hydroponics over traditional farming?
“Our vision is to feed all of Africa’s people through a portfolio of sustainable hydroponic farming methods, creating enduring value and opportunities for all,”
In the first place, it uses 80 percent less water than traditional farming. It takes less space in that vertical pipes can extend upward several meters or more, which is better suited for cities and areas nearby, where land can be expensive. Horizontal ones can be stacked skyward and be of any length. Add to this, growing time and harvesting is greatly reduced, in some cases from two months to one month, allowing an expedited market turn-around and earlier return. Also, harvesting itself is more convenient.
One advantage of hydroponics is that women—with a traditional role of managing a garden—can maintain a system with little effort. Or, as Chege puts it, “Just a few minutes each day—about the time it takes to sweep a floor.” It was only six years ago that Chege focused in on hydroponics as an elixir—if not a panacea—for an Africa suffering chronic food crises. “You can grow six times more product not using soil,” said Chege. “My goal for the company is to feed Africa, and for every household to have a hydroponics system to grow vegetables and fruits for themselves and also for selling in the market,” said Chege. “That’s my biggest dream.”
The goal is reachable.
Hydroponics Africa sells the systems as well as the nutrients to help power-pack and grow the plants. The cost of the systems ranges from a mere $100 to $4,800. Even the smaller system can feed a family of five to eight members. “We do our best to make the systems affordable,” said Chege. “The company has arrangements at several banks to give small loans to growers for about 20 percent down. They can pay it off in about eight months.”
As with any innovative technology, it is not trouble-free.
The mixture of nutrients—which is Chege’s specialist field—has to be changed every two weeks. Additionally, often farmers want to grow a vegetable that doesn’t have a market. “We advise on the market where they have the best opportunities for selling their product,” said Chege.
Chege’s home is Kenya, but he has his eyes on the horizon. He has already established offices throughout the country and is also servicing neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Since 2012, the company has successfully sold more than 365 greenhouse units, 700 hydroponic fodder systems for livestock feed and trained more than 2,200 people. Chege sees growth in the exportation of the company’s systems. The obstacle that must be overcome, however, is learning the bureaucracies of the various countries. “It took us two years to navigate our system through customs in Rwanda,’ he said. “At times we were told our system was not needed. Our challenge will be to manage the future.”
But, like a true entrepreneur, Chege sees the glass half full and not half empty.
“The future of hydroponics is promising. We really get a lot of inquiries all over Africa,” he said. “They come and see how well the crops are doing. They like what they see.”
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.