Hydroponics Africa

Hydroponics Africa: Feeding the Malnourished In the Refugee Camps of Northern Kenya

There are more than 250,000 Somalian and Sudanese refugees crowded into the world’s third-largest camp for displaced people in a parched section of Northern Kenya which is known for its extreme climate.

Many of these refugees are malnourished. They eat once a day—a meal of cornflour with salt. Some have scurvy, a disease that can eventually cause death from infection if not treated, and most all fled violence in their homelands.

Into this picture steps Peter Chege, an agriculture chemist and the man in charge of Hydroponics Africa Limited, a method of growing vegetables with up to 90 percent less water without using soil.

Throughout Kenya and nearby countries, Hydroponics is a commercial venture but with a social impact purpose. Chege is supported by Securing Water for Food (SWFF), a program backed by USAID and the governments of Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

Due to his successful track record, Chege has been working since last year with the World Food Program (WFP) on a pilot mission to install his hydroponic units in the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp. At the same time, he pursued a partnership with the International Organization for Migration.

Thus far, he said, 225 hydroponics units have been installed in the camp, enabling the refugees to have pride in growing their own food and fodder in their backyard.

His hope is that the program can be expanded with sufficient donor support to the WFP. In the meantime, his company focuses on the refugees who are in dire straits from malnourishment.

“We started providing installations for those who needed it most—who were suffering from scurvy,” said Chege. “We launched last year, starting with 80 households and harvested in December and January.”

225 hydroponics units have been installed in the camp, enabling the refugees to have pride in growing their own food and fodder in their backyard.

Chege believes the program is going very well. “Before they could not grow vegetables on the dry and scorching land,” he added. “Basically, all they had was corn and salt.”

The most difficult problem Hydroponics has is deciding where to install their vegetable-growing equipment.

“It’s a challenge. The people who are left out want to know why,” said Chege. “We believe the funding will be there in the future, and that we can easily explain the benefits and expand the number of beneficiaries.”

Chege took the story of Hydroponics Africa to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in June in the Hague. It was sponsored by the US State Department and the Dutch government.

“We were excited about telling our story,” said Chege. Some 300 investors were there along with 1,200 entrepreneurs from around the world vying for support.

To put it succinctly, Chege has a lofty mission: He wants to “feed the whole world through hydroponic innovation and solve the food crisis in Africa,” which admittedly is difficult due to poor farming conditions, negative effects on the climate change, and a growing influx of refugees.

How does Hydroponics Africa work?

Imagine 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 that’s recycled through pipes with holes for plants to peak out. The plants are nourished with nine hours a day of free African sun.

“Our vision is to feed all of Africa’s people through a portfolio of sustainable hydroponic farming methods, creating enduring value, abundance, and opportunities for all. Our mission is to solve the food crisis in Africa,” he said.

Thus far, Chege is succeeding—even exporting to other countries.

Why Hydroponics over traditional farming? 

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. Horizontal ones can be stacked skyward and be of any length.

Add to this, growing time and harvesting is significantly reduced, allowing an expedited market turn-around and earlier return. Also, harvesting itself is more convenient.

One advantage of Hydroponics is that women who have a traditional role in managing a garden can maintain a system with little effort.

It was only six years ago that Chege focused in on Hydroponics as an elixir—if not a panacea—for an Africa suffering acute food crises. “You can grow six times more product without using soil,” said Chege.

“My mission is to install simple and affordable hydroponic farming solutions to every household to help them increase food production, incomes, and improved nutrition. Every household should be able to grow food and fodder for themselves and also for selling in the market,” said Chege.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 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.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water