Sprouting Seeds: Students in Kenya Grow Their Own Healthy Lunches

Hydroponics Africa, a Nairobi company, is helping farmers, school children and families feed themselves with limited space and water.

For students at the government-funded Moi Avenue Primary School nutritious meals — lunches filled with fruits and vegetables — are difficult to find and nearly impossible for the school to afford. Most of the time, students go without any fresh foods, which over time can lead to health problems and stunted growth. This school serves children from ages 4 to 14 in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, a city of more than 3 million people, where accessing healthy food is a major challenge and usually costs more than the budget allocated for food. Because water and land is limited in the city, schools depend on farmers outside the city. Availability and variety is usually lacking.

When the leadership at Moi Avenue School made the decision to grow their own vegetables, Hydroponics Africa — a business based in Kenya — offered to help. Hydroponics is a system that grows plants in water instead of soil. It takes up far less room than conventional farming and can produce a variety of crops, including tomatoes, strawberry, collards and spinach. Hydroponics Africa’s systems also include greenhouses, which control the temperature and moisture of the crops. By combining greenhouses and hydroponics, the systems can grow food with much less land and 80 percent less water than soil-based farming.

Peter Chege Gichuku, the founder and CEO of Hydroponics Africa, first reached out to Moi Avenue School’s principal, Mrs. Mlati (now retired) in 2016. At first, many didn’t understand the hydroponics system or trust that it would work. “There was some resistance at first,” remembers Emily Mugambi, the Operations Manager at Hydroponics Africa. “Some questioned whether the vegetables grown like this were healthy for the students. Even Mrs. Mlati was slightly skeptical.”

To quell their fears, Mr. Bett and Mrs. Katuma, Kenya’s Minister of Agriculture and Deputy Director, reached out to school leadership. They sent emails to the school leaders and attended meetings, selling the idea. Hydroponics Africa also brought the principal and others to their demonstration farm 33 kilometers outside of Nairobi. “The school leaders visited and saw samples of our product,” Edgar Ngugi, the Business Development Manager recalls. “They saw how the system worked and they agreed to let us pilot a program at their school.”

Thanks to a private donor, Hydroponics Africa installed the system at a discounted price. Next, they trained a caretaker to look after the system and supervise the planting and harvesting. School leaders decided the students themselves could help grow the food as an educational experience. Within a few weeks, fresh spinach and kale began appearing in the school’s lunches.

Today, the students not only eat more nutritious food, they are excited about growing it themselves. “Most of the children had only ever seen the food at the supermarkets,” Emily says. “They think it’s fun to grow it themselves, and they learn so much about where their food comes from.”

As students brought their stories home, Hydroponics Africa began to get calls from families wanting to try the system, and many teachers and parents ended up with systems at their homes. “Neighbors would visit the installation at the school,” Edgar says. “It gives them peace of mind to know they will be able to provide nutritious food for their family year-round. There is a lot of pride when you can say, ‘I can rely on myself and not other people to feed my family.’”

Beyond schools, Hydroponics Africa is working with farmers all over West Africa who have limited space. “We work with women who have only small parcels of land to work with, farmers who are frustrated that conventional methods only produce a small amount of crops, and curious farmers who care about new agricultural methods,” Edgar says. “All of them can benefit from the food security, healthy lifestyle, and peace of mind that our systems provide.”