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Innovative farmer grows crops without using soil

Peter Chege explains about the hydroponic method used to grow barley in his greenhouse. [Photo: Willis Awandu]

Kenya: When Peter Chege realised that making chemicals for his employer was not enough, he decided to quit and start his own business.

Through his ingenuity and many years of experience as a quality controller, Chege started a business that left many questioning his sanity.

He came up with an idea that would see him grow vegetables and animal feed without the use of soil.

All that he needed was water containing dissolved plant nutrients and he was ready to start a journey that even he was not sure would be a success.

At first, Chege set out to develop a climate-smart way of growing animal feeds but now he has been growing almost every crop with just water mixed with the crop nutrients.

He says this kind of farming is called hydroponics and was mostly driven by frustration which emanated from receiving low quality grains and animal feed from his suppliers.

An analytical chemist by profession, Chege quit a lucrative job with a pharmaceutical company in 2002 and set up his own investment with an initial capital of Sh400,000.

More economic

“I started Minerals and Allied Limited with Sh400,000. All the money went to the tests of the minerals for the feed. It was difficult at first because the crops were infected by fungus,” says Chege, adding that the initial test for animal fodder was done using three cows from a farmer in his home area.

“The cows reduced milk production as they were not used to barley,” he said. The animals later adapted to the crop, producing more milk and giving Chege his first client.

Hydroponics is a method of farming that uses nutrients dissolved in water instead of soil. It normally requires energy-intensive climate control in order to protect the crop from developing diseases emanating from fungi.

Controlling the climate inside the green house requires electricity and thus is expensive but Chege developed various pocket-friendly technologies that do not use electrical power.

This method of farming relies primarily on water, a system Chege says is effective in managing the resource as the same is recycled until all the nutrients run out. Studies have indicated that hydroponics systems are at least 10 times more economical in water usage in comparison to field farming.

Studies indicate that hydroponic technology can efficiently generate food crops from barren desert sand and desalinated ocean water, in mountainous regions too steep to farm, on city rooftops and concrete schoolyards and in arctic communities. In highly populated tourist areas where skyrocketing land prices have driven out traditional agriculture, hydroponics can provide locally grown high-value specialty crops such as fresh salad greens, herbs and cut flowers.

The hydroponic technology is not Chege’s invention but has been adapted in Kenya, with him as its pioneer in the country. It has been practised for hundreds of years across the world.

Chege’s efforts to domesticate the technology and customise it for the average Kenyan farmer has born results as he has been able to install his systems in various parts of the country.

One has to invest approximately Sh120,000 for the whole system and those who already own green houses, have to part with Sh20,000 to have it fully installed.

He hopes to introduce the system in Uganda and later to the other East Africa countries. “You really do not need soil or land to grow most crops. Soil is simply a medium that transports the nutrients to the plants’ roots but it can be replaced,” says Chege who grows tomatoes, barley, lettuce and strawberries on his small plot in Kikuyu.

The technology’s uptake by local farmers, he says, has been overwhelming as most of them have been frequenting his farm for seedlings for their newly created hydroponic systems.

Timothy Ngugi, a farmer using hydroponic farming, says since he started feeding his cows with the feed and milk production has gone up significantly.

“When I started feeding my cows using the fodder I harvest from my greenhouse, milk production shot up from two to five litres a day per cow,” says Ngugi, adding that the fodder grown hydroponically contains more protein.

And Stephen Waweru, another farmer who uses hydroponics in his farm, notes that his budget for feeding his pigs has drastically gone down since the system was installed. “This fodder is cheaper and contains low fat which is usually good for pigs,” says Waweru.

Chege says barley grows to approximately 30cm within a week instead of the normal three weeks. “These plants are able to reach their genetic potential because of the tightly controlled environment,” says Chege.

Technical expertise

As a result, farmers using his systems can grow up to 500kg of animal feed per week in a small area using 80 per cent less water than in traditional farming.

His work has received recognition from investors and small entrepreneurs alike such as the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre.

This organisation took up the role of training farmers who are using the hydroponic technology, which he says has given the business more attention.

He says the organisation has also provided him with business and technical expertise and mentorship and is also helping him with legal matters such as guidance on intellectual property rights.

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