An agricultural revolution is taking place in Kenya’s towns with mini-farms sprouting in the most unlikely of spaces. From buckets to plastic containers, sacks, and pots, the little farms are sprouting everywhere.
In some instances, no soil is needed. The urban farming movement is especially spreading fast in Nairobi and central Kenya.
Hydroponic technology uses water enriched with nutrients. This solution contains easily absorbable minerals at the right quantities for the growth of fodder, tomatoes, strawberries, flowers and various vegetables.
In Mukuru kwa Njenga, an informal settlement in Nairobi, a number of slum dwellers have put soil and manure in buckets, sacks and any available containers to grow crops.
The growth of urban farming is mainly attributed to the hunger and food security concerns amid shrinking agricultural land. Various studies show that food takes more than 40 percent of Kenyans’ household incomes.
Rapid urbanisation has also seen farmlands turned into real estate. In response to the effects of climate change – characterised by unpredictable rains, unpredictable, floods, and droughts – hundreds of farmers have embraced and adopted adopt the more sophisticated innovations like hydroponic farming. Under hydroponic farming, plants are grown in water enriched with nutrients, without using any soil. Livestock keepers are using the technology to grow fodder for poultry, pigs and cattle.
Some have adopted it for growing vegetables like tomatoes, kales and broccoli. Hydroponic technology uses water enriched with nutrients. This solution contains easily absorbed minerals at the right quantities for the growth of fodder, tomatoes, strawberries, flowers and various vegetables. Eliminating soil helps avoid soil-borne diseases, which are notorious for destroying crops. It also helps avoid wastage of water. A lot of water is lost in conventional farming because the soil absorbs some and the rest percolates down to the water table. Growing crops without using soil also helps a plant to grow faster and retain more nutrients. When crops are grown in soil, most nutrients are lost in the soil or washed away during heavy rains.
But the hydroponic process helps to reduce the amount of fertiliser used. Moreover, the plant easily draws absorptive nutrients from the water, growing very fast as a result.
Several things are needed to start a hydroponic system: Ashes, aluminium or plastic trays and containers, clean uncontaminated water, mineral solutions, and seeds. The shed is made of a green material that is easily avail- able in local shops.
The material is unique and helps to maintain temperatures at 17-25 degrees Celsius, the range recommended for hydroponic crops. The shed also helps to reduce excessive evaporation. A farmer will also need to invest in aluminium or plastic trays for growing fodder and plastic containers for growing crops such as tomatoes, onions and strawberries. The trays must be treated to eliminate moulds. The number of trays that the farmer needs depends on the number of animals that one intends to feed. Contaminated water can serve both as a source and medium for transmission of diseases.
Only a small amount of water is needed, partly because run-off water is easily recycled. Perhaps the greatest advantage with the hydroponic system is the fast growth and early maturity of crops. Fodder that would take several months to reach maturity in a conventional field takes only a few days to mature in a hydroponic system.
The growth and maturity rates of the tomatoes grown hydroponically are similarly high compared with those grown conventionally.
The crops are also able to reach their full genetic potential. All the nutrients in the plant are retained, and so the fodder is highly nutritious.
Farmers say cows fed on the fodder have a higher milk production than those fed on dry fodder or other feeds. The system comes with a few challenges, though. Due to the recycling of the nutrient solution, the risk of spreading diseases is very high and one slight mistake can lead to huge losses.
Though soil-borne diseases are eliminated, the risk of waterborne diseases is high. The initial cost of putting up the structure can also be a hindrance to many farmers. The ideal size depends on the number of animals or amount of crops one wants to plant. The system also requires a lot of tender care and close supervision. Hydroponic system of farming was innovated hundreds of years ago and is still practised in countries such as Australia.
In Africa, it is not widely used.
Many town dwellers dream of growing their own crops for sale and consumption but never realise their dreams because of lack of land. But with technology, they can now achieve their dreams.
Warm weather mushroom
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology has developed a mushroom variety suited to warm weather, opening a new revenue stream for farmers. The variety called Agaricus Bitorqui is also resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases. Scientists at the university’s Institute of Biotechnology Research (IBR) have found that the new variety grows at 25 degrees Celsius above the others. October-March is its ideal growing season since most parts of the country are usually warm.
Kenyan farmers have been growing the Agaricus Bisphorus type, which is unfriendly to those who are unable to regulate temperatures down to the ideal 19 or 20 degrees Celsius. Such conditions have virtually locked Mombasa, Kisumu and even around Nairobi out of mushroom farming. The demand for mushrooms has been growing but there has been a challenge in temperature control.
The new variety released by JKUAT, scientists say, also tastes better than the Bisphorus variety, and has a longer shelf life, less diseases, and a better quality. It is recommended for small-scale farming. Seeds are available at the university.
The institution is also training farmers on growing production, packaging, preservation, pest and diseases, and marketing. Vegetable gardens make town dwellers’ dreams valid.
Many town dwellers dream of growing their own crops for sale and consumption but never realise their dreams because of lack of land. But with technology, they can now achieve their dreams. One can simply establish his or her own vertical or horizontal garden, which occupies minimal space. This will save him or her money, and give the family an assurance of supplies of various types of vegetables throughout the year.
The Horticultural Crops Directorate (HCD) has innovated various types of vegetable gardens that are suitable for people who have limited farming spaces. HCD is the institution in charge of horticulture under the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA).
AFA has been showcasing some of the vertical and horizontal gardens technologies at the Agriculture Society of Kenya (ASK) shows across the country. Establishing a vertical or horizontal garden is simple. You will need a raised tank whose size is dependent on the size of your garden. In the tank clean water is mixed with nutrients which are then fed to the plants.
The nutrients, which are soluble in water, are composed of potassium, copper, calcium, iron, nitrogen and other necessary minerals. These micro and macro nutrients are sold by a private hydroponics expertise firm, according to HCD. For vertical gardens, you have to make holes on a PVC pipe. These holes should be big enough to fit a plant.
Afterwards, dig a hole in the ground and put the pipe, burying it for about 30 centimetres. Take a black water pipe and make some small holes, then put it in the PVC pipe. Through the holes, the water pipe supplies water to the plants.
The water pipe is connected to water supply. The holes, in both cases, can easily be made by use of a hot piece of metal. The bigger pipe is filled with a mixture of organic manure and pumice granules before the plantlets are planted all through the vertical holes.
For the horizontal garden, a wooden stand is made with space to place half-cut PVC pipes. Cut the pipes into halves, each taking up the length of the stand, and the width of the diameter. Add a mixture of pumice granules and organic manure in each ‘trough’ and plant the plantlets.
Place the ‘troughs’ on the stand, each on its right place, and connected to water source. Under this method, manual irrigation is applicable. Besides, this type of garden can easily be moved from one point to another. There is a wide range of vegetables that can be grown with the horizontal and vertical gardens technology.
These include spinach, lettuce, collard green and black nightshade. The materials are readily available and easily accessible. Besides, the establishment of these gardens is easy and can be done within a short time, say when you are off duty.