There is some controversy around the origin of the term: “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” But when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa, Peter Chege owns it. Chege is CEO of Hydroponics Africa, and its latest expansion of the innovation of growing crops without soil, is in Djibouti, a small country with a population of one million.
“We were told by officials there, it couldn’t be done,” said Chege, whose company is based in Kenya but is operating in a half dozen countries throughout Africa and expanding. Chege finds that the best way to win over skeptics is simply to demonstrate the benefits of the product.
“We were able to take the Governor of Djibouti to a farm in Kenya and demonstrate how the system works, both as household units and more commercial installations.” In turn, Chege sent members of his team to Djibouti to explore the situation.
We want to expand, but not so fast that we can’t implement. We want to do the type of job where we can grow throughout Africa and elsewhere in similar climate situations.
The Hydroponics Africa team attended a conference with a representative of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Food Program, and eight regional Djibouti leaders to discuss the feasibility of hydroponics. “The mission of the governor was to feed some 130,000 people,” said Chege, out of a population of about one million, most of those are at the base of the economic pyramid.
Chege said the Djibouti Minister of Agriculture was quick to tell his team that hydroponics was not possible in the area. “He said they had conducted a pilot hydroponics project, and it wasn’t satisfactory,” he added. The problem, according to doubting Djibouti officials, was the water simply had too much salinity, and it drove the pH factor totally off the charts. To Hydroponics Africa, that was an interesting observation, but not all that relevant.
“We are able to reduce the pH levels and salinity by using the nutrients that we add to the water and use a plant responsive drip that does not allow certain ions to get to crops,” said Chege. Chege’s team had been successfully working in Northern Sudan, which actually has the same climate as that of Djibouti. “I don’t foresee any great challenges ahead,” said Chege.
Though hydroponics has been Chege’s field for nearly two decades, he received an entrepreneur boost several years ago when his innovation was selected for the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, funded by USAID and the governments of South Africa, the Netherland, and Sweden. The assistance came in the form of grants, but just as important to Chege was the technical assistance he received from the SWFF team along the way.
He was one of about 40 innovators chosen from around the world to join in the competitive program in which his company was required to meet specific goals each year. While the theory of hydroponics – growing plants without soils and a greatly reduced amount of water – has been around for several thousand years, modern methods and added nutrients have stimulated its growth, particularly in dry climate areas.
Vegetables and fruits, as well as animal fodder, are grown through vertical or horizontal pipes elevated above the ground through which a trickle of nutrient-enriched water passes.
“Our forecast is to continue to partner with the government of Djibouti and the agriculture sector,” said Chege. “We have two members of our team on the ground there now. Some materials we will source locally and some will come from Kenya.
However, Chege doesn’t want Hydroponics Africa to get ahead of itself.
“We want to expand, but not so fast that we can’t implement. We want to do the type of job where we can grow throughout Africa and elsewhere in similar climate situations,” he said.
USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), 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