Kenya is experimenting with soilless food production

Cities in Africa grow fast. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is expected to have more than 10 million inhabitants in 2040. This requires a steep increase of food production, while the acreage of agricultural land is decreasing, partly due to decreasing soil quality. In Kenya however tests with soilless production of vegetables in combination with aquaculture are shown to be successful.

One of the main challenges that conventional agriculture faces is degradation of soils. The FAO of the United Nations reports that the amount of arable land by 2050 will only be a quarter of the level in 1960. This can be attributed to both the growing population and soil degradation. As a result, fertilizer consumption per hectare of arable land has risen considerably. But fertilizers are produced from natural resources that are rapidly getting depleted. To be able to ensure productivity of land now and in the future, new and sustainable approaches to agriculture are a must.

Dutch version of the article

'Improving cultivation conditions makes it possible to increase production while preventing soil degradation'

Optimizing farming methods

With megacities sprouting up, having farms close to cities is important in order to ensure steady supplies of fresh produce and an efficient supply chain. In line with global developments, consumer behavior is slowly but surely shifting towards locally harvested, fresh and organically produced food. Urban (organic) farming is on the rise in Africa.

However, the major agricultural challenges remain. Farming in Africa is still expensive. Moreover, land in proximity to cities is becoming more and more costly, and the variable costs of utilities such as power and water prove to be a challenge for farmers as well.

With more sophisticated greenhouses and shade nets, climatic conditions can increasingly be controlled, making it easier to grow crops in regions that have non-ideal weather conditions. Thanks to smart sensor networks, growth conditions and operations at the farm can be closely monitored from anywhere in the world. By improving growth conditions with technology, yields can be increased, while preventing soil depletion

Osiligi Farm

More technology, less inputs

For large farms in Kenya, one of the challenges is the dependence on imported inputs such as  pesticides and fertilizers. These goods are at times scarce and often costly. One way farmers have started becoming less dependent on expensive inputs is by replacing inorganic nutrients with organically produced inputs. These inputs are increasingly available locally.

Osiligi Farm is an innovative farm just outside of Kiserian in Kajiado County in Kenya. Osiligi Farm uses aquaponics, combining cultivation of fish and crops. Aquaponics combines the most advanced elements of hydroponics and aquaculture technologies, ensuring optimal and stable growth conditions for both fish and crops.

Aquaponics is an example of an aqua-agriculture system that can fulfill goals for near-zero waste in energy, water and nutrients. Near-zero waste is made possible by using the water from the fish tanks to enhance plant growth, allowing to grow both fish and crops in an environmentally friendly way. Moreover, the closed systems take advantage of waste and energy recycling, allowing year round production, as there is zero dependence on rainfall.

Lettuce production at Osiligi Farm

Soilless food production

Osiligi Farm applies a productive and at the same time resource-efficient food production model. By decoupling production from soil-based agriculture and by implementing efficient recycling loops, this system reduces the required inputs for organic vegetables and protein.

Insight into optimal growth conditions is key to maximize production at Osiligi Farm. The faster the growth cycle of the crops, the higher the return on investment.

Osiligi Farm uses Upande sensors to get insights regarding which materials to use for greenhouses, when to irrigate, how many nutrients have been dissolved in the water, the level of water stored in the tanks, etc. By using this new technology, Osiligi Farm staff get access to live monitoring of the physical conditions at the farm, thus allowing them to intervene where needed based on actionable insights. The partnership between Osiligi and Upande is being marketed as AgriLift.farm.

Affordable sensors and data loggers

Unfortunately, innovative technological instruments are still out of reach for smallholder farmers in Africa. At the same time, the cost of the technology is rapidly decreasing. Upande has seen the cost of hardware halve during the last five years. Upande is producing low cost sensors and data loggers in Kenya which are already being deployed in the fields all over the continent. By integrating this sensor data into their affordable enterprise resource planning (ERP) application, called UpandeERP, digital record keeping and performance optimization is quickly becoming within reach for smallholder farmers in the next decade. Although more changes are needed for agriculture to become sustainable and future proof, steps forward are being made. The future looks promising.

For more information about Upande and their innovative systems please contact them by sending an email to info@upande.com
Would you also like to share the story of your innovative company? Or do you have any questions for the agriculture department? Please send an email to nai-lnv@minbuza.nl. For the latest updates, news, funding oppertunities and more follow us on twitter @NLAgriKenya.

This article is part of the Agro Special Soil Improvement. For more articles about Soil Improvement please see here.