Solar-powered system to boost food production

It is a lab in a container that uses solar energy and grows a large amount of seedlings, 25 per cent faster. It tests soil and seeds for disease and acts as a weather station

Recently, about 100 farmers gathered around a container in a small town in the North Rift, to witness the wonders of a new technology that will see them significantly cut crop production costs and increase their profit margin. At the site, a farm in Turbo, Uasin Gishu County, the farmers were shown and trained on a range of services that make up the Solar Grow (SG1) technology, a renewable energy horti- cultural crop growing system.

Among the services SG1 offers is a laboratory for testing crop diseases, as well as a production area for germination of seeds. It germinates 100,000 seeds in a week, at a 25 per cent higher growth rate than normal. The farmers were shown seven-day- old peas at the centre that were the same size as those grown three weeks ago at a normal germination rate.

At the unit, more than 100 seeds can be tested for diseases daily while a weather station to monitor change in patterns is on standby. In addition, a machine that tests the soil PH and solar-powered internet connection are also available.

While at the farm, tests were carried out on 300 different species of plants, and as the training was going on, 1,500 samples of soil were tested. Did we also mention that the unit can irrigate a five-acre plot of land?

SG1 systems are mobile solar-powered germination and seedling plant factories, which provide a major leap in food production due to the quantity and diversity of what it can produce and the speed at which it produces seedlings.

Delivered as a standard shipping container systems, the SG1 “command module” is fully habitable including a toilet, shower. It contains all the necessary horticultural equipment imaginable, is designed to meet all EU Health and Safety guidelines and can be sited anywhere as it runs on solar power. Mr Wilson Ingosi, an agronomist who is managing the centre said the number of farmers who could attend the training sessions had to be drastically reduced to get maximum Concentration. Government officials from the forest department, ministry of Agriculture and the provincial administration also attended the sessions.

“I will use the facility to offer field lessons to my students,” said Mr Edward Manani of Chepkoilel University College in Eldoret. The inventor of the SG1, Mr Alexander Bushel of Boundless Horizons of the United Kingdom said the machine, which won the British and World Invention of the Year Award, would cut costs of production and increase yields while at the same time make it possible for farmers to diversify crop production.

To get an idea of just how much farmers could benefit from this technology, sample this: While soil tests are done at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) in Nairobi at a cost of Sh1,500 and take about three weeks to get results, the SG1 offers the same service at only Sh500 and the results are instant. Each soil PH test will be charged at about Sh50.

Compared to artificial insemination, which requires one to maintain pedigree improvement for up to 15 years to get the desired results, ET technology requires only two years.

“This has the potential to have a huge impact on the farmers and their families,” said Mr Alex Haxton, the CEO of Emerge Poverty Free, an international charity organisation which bought the unit in Turbo.

“The vast majority of people living in poverty today are subsistence farmers. I am very excited about the possibility of finding a new way to help them out of poverty,” said Mr Haxton in a press statement. Inventor Bushell specifically designed the SG1 system to help in the fight against world hunger. The system does this by hugely increasing yields and reducing growth time, producing large quantities of seedlings that can be distributed to local farmers.

For instance, the system can produce 50,000 tomato seedlings for distribution within a week. SG1 is also environmentally sound, making use of natural fertilisers and solar power. Its process is also much more water efficient than traditional farming.

Said Bushell: “I am thrilled at this opportunity to put SG1 to exactly the kind of use for which it was designed – increasing food production in locations where this is not otherwise possible.”

The SG1 container, costing about Sh3.9 million, is the only one of its kind in Africa, but two others are expected in the country, if a sponsor is identified. The facility was bought through talks held with Bishop Daniel Kwatuha of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC). Growing crops without sunlight, in half the time.

As advancements in agriculture intensify across the globe, Kenya is not being left behind. From tracking animals using electronic tags, growing crops without soil and precision agriculture, which uses satellite technology, growing crops indoors is the unfolding of revolutionary technology that will be of vital importance, especially in the urban centres. This entails production in basements, or dark rooms, where sunlight is not necessary and rainfall is irrelevant.

A Light Emitting Diode (LED) is among the new out-of-the-box technologies that could effectively tackle the challenge from the impact of diminishing agricultural land and erratic climatic patterns on food, against a fast growing population.

The vast majority of people living in poverty today are subsistence farmers. I am very excited about the possibility of finding a new way to help them out of poverty.

With these lights, plants are grown indoors in climate-controlled rooms with no pesticides or hormones required. Some 90 per cent less water is used, while the importance of having huge tracts of land for food production also reduces.

“Commercial growers and greenhouse owners have long understood the use of additional lights. Plants grow bigger, taller, and leafier, and produce better flowers with the use of supplemental lighting.

Those growing fruits and vegetables find that their plants have a higher yield with the use of lights,” says Inesa Ltd director Stefan Adriaensens. Inesa Ltd, which provides pre-fabricated structures and air treatment services, is the company that has introduced these lights to the East Africa.

“Some plants require 14-16 hours daily for optimal growth, yet here in Kenya, we have at most 12 hours of sunlight,” he says. Plants convert light from the sun into energy through photosynthesis, but they only need some parts of the sun’s colour spectrum.

“Plants do not use all the wave lengths or colours emitted by the sun or by HID lights. Scientists have discovered that they need red light to flower and blue light to grow,” Mr Adriaensens adds.

“If you want your plants to flower, you need to have LEDs that produce waves in the red part of the spectrum. If you want to help plants when they first start to germinate and grow, you need a light that produces a lot of waves from the blue part of the spectrum.”

Though the use of artificial lighting is not entirely new and growers have traditionally had high intensity lamps to grow gardens indoors, “these lights are energy inefficient and bulky compared to LED grow lights,” he says.

Advantages of LED light

  1. You can grow crops 365 days a year, anytime, and anywhere, as long as you have a controlled climate with some water. You do not need large tracts of land to grow adequate food.
  2. Huge savings on water and a gentler to environment
  3. Compared to high-density lighting, they are more convenient; lamps do not require a portable power source to keep them lit.
  4. They use less electricity. The plant only gets the light spectrum that it needs to grow, leading to reduced energy consumption.
  5. Longevity. They last longer than their high intensity counterparts.
  6. Less heat. Plants respond differently to heat. Some plants like the extra heat, other plants respond poorly. LED lights produce less heat than other lights and obviously the sun. They do not use filaments.

However, LEDs have a high initial cost. But as the technology develops, the lights should become cheaper and save more money in the long run than sodium or halide lights.

Many people have been very happy with the LED grow lights but some have not, says Mr Adriaensens. “In most cases, this is because they bought an inferior product.”

Choosing a quality LED grow light

  1. Pay attention to the actual watt draw. Because of complex scientific reasons, a one-watt diode will not draw one watt, but may draw less than that amount. Check closely to see the actual number of watts drawn. If the number does not appear in the fine print, ask for it. You do not want to purchase something that appears to be a 500-watt light that only draws 40 watts.
  2. Warranty. High quality LEDs have at least a one-year warranty. The better ones have a five-year warranty. Get one that has a good warranty.
  3. Heat Sink. LED lights need to have a good heat sink. Otherwise, the chips can overheat and break. Ensure that the light you purchase has a good heat sink with many fins and a good fan.
  4. Trial period: Some manufacturers take advantage of first-time buyers. Make sure you only purchase lights that have a trial period of at least 30 days. Then if you are dissatisfied with the performance, you can get a refund.
  5. Beam angle: There are three standard beam angles. The 60-degree beam angle is good for tall plants. The 120-degree beam angle is good for wide areas.
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