It’s not a stretch to label Peter Chege the equivalent of the legendary Johnny Appleseed of sub-Saharan Africa due to hydroponics installations cropping up wherever he goes. He’s providing nourishment and marketable crops in water-starved regions, as well as aiding governments where large numbers of people have been displaced by internal struggles.
Chege is the CEO of Hydroponics Africa, located in Nairobi, Kenya, but serving an ever-widening territory. Most recently, he has targeted Sudan with its population of refugees, as well as Djibouti. Hydroponics is a method of growing vegetables, fruits, and animal fodder in horizontal or vertical pipe installations through which a trickle of nutrient-enriched water flows.
The primary advantages are that it uses significantly less water than soil-based crops, and with added nutrients and minimal care and cost its suited for small landholders and families. Chege has been in the hydroponics field for nearly two decades and is finding his business is growing in Africa despite the climate challenges.
Hydroponics agriculture technique actually dates back thousands of years. An early example would be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The theory behind it isn’t exactly high tech. However, modern science has enabled hydroponics plants to grow faster, stronger, and healthier with proper nutrients, while leaving out harmful chemicals and pests.
The crops started to thrive using the same water that previously they could not use.
In October 2019 Chege was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree in Dubai from Commonwealth University in recognition of his impact in the field of hydroponics.
Chege has been helped along his career path by such programs as Securing Water for Food (SWFF), a USAID program joined by the governments of Sweden, South Africa, and the Netherlands. SWFF has provided funding and technical assistance. Hydroponics Africa was one of only 40 projects selected after a rigorous competition to be selected into the program.
When the assignment came to him from an organization called “Welthungerhilfer” in September of 2019, Chege packed his bags and headed to the North Darfur province of Sudan. “With money from a Canadian NGO, they contacted me to see if hydroponics was even possible,” said Chege. “ I spent a month in the region studying the climate, local materials, and the type of crops they wanted. In the beginning, I committed two hydroponics systems to the area.”
After that initial foray, however, the company gave Hydroponics Africa the go-ahead to supply the installations and source local materials, as well as train those who would benefit from the system.
“So far, we have delivered 150 hydroponics systems to many displaced families,” said Chege. With a half-million displaced people in North Darfur, this is only the beginning. Chege said that while people were receiving some food from the World Food Program, the food wasn’t as healthy as that provided by hydroponics grown vegetables.
“They mainly just get starchy food, and because the temperature can get cold, the crops they do have will not grow,” added Chege. “They need access to vegetables, and they don’t get it.”
Chege said that in addition to the hydroponics systems they have delivered, they have also provided several more just for training and have trained 40 women on best practices in hydroponics so far. Chege said the plants are doing well in the North Darfur region, and the women are able to manage the household systems on their own, harvesting fresh vegetables.
The company’s services, however, extend beyond the installation of systems and training to include teaching the women the basics of good nutrition for their families. “At the same time,” he said, “they are able to sell the excess vegetables to local people so they can have income,” he added.
As a result, the funding organization has extended Chege’s contract by another seven months, and they are in discussions to replicate the North Darfur effort in other states and cities in Sudan. Because the climate and soil in Sudan is different than that in Kenya, Chege said they have had to overcome various obstacles. In North Darfur, the water has high salinity.
“We have been able to, by using the hydroponic nutrients, reduce the pH content (balance between acid and alkaline). The crops started to thrive using the same water that previously they could not use,” said Chege.
Chege said the hydroponics methodology has really encouraged the displaced people because there is less labor involved in growing food, and it’s more efficient. “The efficiency comes in because the system only gives water to the crops that show characteristics that signal they need more water,” said Chege. Businesses involved in agriculture often have ups and downs. However, with hydroponics cropping, Chege believes the opportunities with small plot farming is unlimited.
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