Are vertical gardens the future of farming in Africa?

29Jun 2021
By Stella Nasambu
The Guardian
Are vertical gardens the future of farming in Africa?

​​​​​​​“LAND capital is so high, and yet what farmers can plant on the ground is so little”.

Fred Kimani and Fred Muthiga inspect herb instalments of the vertical gardens.

Farmers may yet find a solution above ground, with tower gardens. That is if cousins and proprietors of Vertical Gardens, an alternative farming solutions company, have any say in the matter.

Fred Muthiga and Fred Kimani came together in 2012 after they perceived a gap in the market for farmers who could not afford vast tracts of land – the duo put in US$120 of starting capital and soon the business grew.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise as more customers from urban areas began to trickle in. “Fast forward to 2020, when Covid-19 happened, we saw an influx of people grow their own food,” reports Muthiga.

Vertical Gardens offers a variety of services such as vertical garden system, a crate system going for anywhere between US$180 to US$50. Tower gardens and the Pouch systems are also available for anywhere from US$130 in Kenya.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, more than 68 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050. These urban customers will need high quality pesticide-free food but, despite this projection, the growth in the industry remains low.

This may well be the case with many of the vertical garden customers asking for installation on their balconies. “We provided solutions that enabled our customers to grow their own food…in a safe and hygienic way,” says Muthiga.


What’s happening with the rest of Africa?


There may be a demand for hydroponics as a service, but what does it really take to set up a working system? Huge barriers face anyone looking to go down the vertical farming. There are quite a few barriers, among them huge initial investment and frequent power cuts – not to mention the enormous cost of setting up an alternative power source system.

African governments have made a push for hydroponics among other next-generation methods of farming to attract its youth population to provide labour for its agricultural market.

According to a 2021 report by the International Labour Organisation, the continent’s labour force has increased markedly in size during the same period – from 302.1 million in 2000 to 489.7 million in 2019 – and was projected to reach 518 million by this year. Meanwhile, governments are bent on making agriculture sexy again.

In Uganda, for example, the Makerere University Agricultural Research Institute in Kabanyolo now hosts demonstrations of agricultural technologies, including hydroponics, that the youth and farmers can learn from.

Papius Tumusingize heads the section on hydroponic systems and greenhouses management under which youths are trained.

This is done in collaboration with the Learn As You Earn Programme of the Consortium for University Responsiveness to Agribusiness Development (CURAD), an agribusiness incubator based at the Institute.

But hydroponics is yet to take off in Uganda, where rich arable land is available for farming and many still prefer traditional methods of farming.

Back in Tanzania, hydroponics has seen some more progress in comparison to other East African countries. Mwamy Mlangwa (47) has launched a hydroponics farm under her company, Mwamy Green Veggies, the first of its kind in the east African nation.

Mwamy started the business four years, acquiring the technology in Israel, and is now selling pesticide-free vegetables to hotels, supermarkets and even international airlines. Whether this will be the case for other East African countries remains to be seen.

In Zambia, the government and the World Food Programme are using hydroponics to boost school meals. The country of 18 million people is facing a food security crisis brought on by extreme weather due to climate change.

The government had set up, as recently as this April, 23 green houses in schools to help pilot hydroponics as the new wave of agricultural technology.

According to the World Food Programme’s website, training will be made available to parents, teachers and the students. Each green house will grow at least 2,000 plants, getting an estimated 1,300 kg of much-needed vegetables per month.


Is vertical farming needed in Kenya?


The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says YES as, after all, agriculture contributes 26 per cent of the country’s GDP and another 2726 per cent via links to other sectors. It also employs 4026 per cent of the total Kenyan population.

Admittedly, the sector has problems. Many problems. For example, even with such a large contribution meant to grow the economy, more needs to be done on the ground.

The FAO report states that many farmers are reliant on rain-fed farming systems and are being pushed into dryer more marginal areas, which makes them vulnerable to drought.

Climate change is clearly to blame, but these problems are linked to even bigger problems like food insecurity, pastoralist conflicts and reliance on food aid.

USAID also says in its 2021 report that agricultural productivity in Kenya has gradually stagnated in recent years, despite continuous population growth.

The coronavirus pandemic has made things much worse, with higher retail prices and reduced incomings forcing a large number of households to cut down on the quality and quantity of food consumption.

This has a devastating effect on farmers and food producers; they face unprecedented losses of perishable and nutritious produce as overall consumption shifts towards cheaper staples.

Only 20 per cent of Kenyan land is suitable for farming and in these areas maximum yields have not been achieved, which leaves considerable potential for increases in productivity. Vertical gardens may just be the solution to averting this growing crisis.


Vertical gardening fact box


Wondering why you should get into hydroponics? Hydroponics uses alternatives mediums to soil eliminating the usual weed problems. Less weeds, more yield!

Hydroponics allows one to one to grow up to four times the number of plants. One can raise fish and plants in the same system. Now you don’t just have one business but two and double the profit!

Wondering what needs to be done to support hydroponics in Africa? There is hope for young African farmers. African government are gaining more and more support from institutions like the World Bank among other financial agencies out to improve the farming sector as whole.

These partnerships between and among African government have laid emphasis on improving water infrastructure, developing the capacity of water user association delivery input, more soil testing, encouraging take-up of crop insurance and credit extensions advice, and multi-market linkages.

The ultimate desire has always been to get money into farmers’ pockets and equipment into the right hands, including cash transfers, seed and fodder packages and other socio-economic safety nets.

However, many farmers may never see the trickle-down effect owing to the documented run-away corruption by many governments across the continent. But whether hydroponics takes off for Africa’s youth and young farmers in the future, only time will tell.

26 per cent

  • A BBC Money Daily piece published courtesy of BBC World Service Group Communications Publicist Marina Forsythe.

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