Vertical farming, hydroponics, crop picking robots, automated and wireless greenhouses and the ambition to grow plants in all kinds of environments reaching from the deserts of Africa to the ISS and foreign planets, all sound like modern, expensive inventions of an advanced world and futuristic science. Frankly, these words are used in the same context as: saving the world, climate change, battling world hunger and fighting the lack of agricultural space.
However, we easily forget that it does not necessarily need a state-of-the-art vertical farm, automated robotic systems, fancy re-circulation systems or high-end crops to battle the challenges of places in need. People know how to help themselves.
In this article, I would like to introduce you to Peter Chege, a Kenyan entrepreneur, who installed a hydroponic farm in Kikuyu, Kenya, and is successfully growing crops in the heat of Africa. In a hydroponic farm, plants are grown without any soil. Water and nutrients are directly supplied to the free hanging roots of the crops. The hydroponic farm of Peter Chege functions without any electricity, is completely self-build with locally available materials and an example of adaptation and problem overcoming. Inside his farm or greenhouse, layers of plants are stacked above each other in a self-build construction from wood and plastic buckets, which makes it a small vertical farm. By now, three to four layers of plants are stacked above each other, but according to Peter Chege: “only the sky is the limit” if it comes to the number of layers. If you enter the farm, you will find lettuce, spinach, barley and even tomatoes and strawberries. Let’s have a closer look:
The vertical farm of Peter Chege in South Africa.
We have already learned that the farm works without electricity. How? Modern LED lamps are not necessary to provide enough light for the plants, as Africa’s sun is intense enough. The plants are watered manually and, as they are stacked on top of each other, the water can run from the top tube to further down located ones and nurture the lower plants. Alternatively, lettuce can be grown in buckets, filled with a few liters of nutrition solution, which is enough to provide them with nutrition and water until they can be harvested. A fabric on top of the roof is protecting the plants from sunburn, while it controls the temperature and humidity at the same time. Peter Chege even patented aluminium trays with a specific coating, that can improve the plants’ resistance against certain fungi. He is mainly using these aluminium trays for wheat sprouts. The major benefit of this hydroponic system is saving water and time. According to Peter Chege, just 3 liters of water are enough to grow one lettuce. Furthermore, it takes the only 6 weeks until the lettuce can be harvested in contrast to 12 weeks. Tomatoes produce 3-4 times more fruits than commonly grown ones. This is because the plant can invest more energy in reproduction than in e.g. root growth.
“These plants are able to reach their genetic potential because of the tightly controlled environment.”
This hydroponic vertical farm is not the only one in Kenya. Peter Chege and his team are selling +/- 5 hydroponic set-ups per week. The company grows. It sold over 365 greenhouses and 700 hydroponic fodder systems in the past years. Additionally, they trained more than 2200 people in Kenya, Uganda, Ruanda and Tanzania with the knowledge Peter Chege gained with his hydroponic farm.
But how did everything start?
Initially, Peter Chege founded the company Hydroponics Kenya in 2002 to supply other farmers with nutritional supplements to enhance animal output. Animal fodder is costly and additionally not of high quality in Kenya. He wanted to change that, which evoke the idea of his hydroponic system that allows farmers to grow high quality animal fodder at a lower cost. Consequently, he switched to improving crop growth in 2013. Today, Peter Chege is supported by the Kenya Climate Innovation Center CIC, which helped to turn his knowledge into business. As a matter of fact, most of the harvested food (especially lettuce and wheat sprouts) is used to feed livestock like pigs and cows. However, also strawberries and tomatoes turned out to be easily grown hydroponically. They produce a higher yield in lesser days and thus can be used to provide food for people (among other crops).
“Our vision is to feed all of Africa’s people through a portfolio of sustainable hydroponic farming methods, creating enduring value, abundance and opportunities to all. To solve the food crisis in Africa.”
Sources and further reading:
Kenyan Climate Innovation Center: https://kenyacic.org/index.php