TAKING HYDRPONICS FARMING VERTICAL

Fred Kimani, co-founder, Vertical Gardens.
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Vertical Garden takes hydroponic farming to another level by making gardening go vertical

By Joseph Macharia

Times are changing fast. As the global human population surges upwards, new techniques of farming are constantly being devised to ensure a  steady supply of food. Vertical gardens are one of them. It is   a system of hydroponic farming that uses towers to grow crops without soil, allowing people with minimum space to have fresh produce within their compounds.

In the periphery of Nairobi City in Kikuyu, an agribusiness venture, Vertical Gardens has taken on its own to improve and extend vertical gardening as a new way of farming. The vertical gardens are engineered for people with minimal space, more so to city dwellers  who  are pressed for space. Primarily, hydroponics is farming using a substance called pumis as an alternative to soil. Vertical gardens can be used both in commercial and residential set ups.

Roots

The two founders who are cousins, Fred Mwithiga and Fred Kimani both who descend from a lineage of farmers stumbled upon on hydroponics in 2017 and decided to run with it. In fact, even at a young age of ten,  one of the Freds   could operate a tractor!

Obsessed with a consuming passion for hydroponics, the two first conducted extensive experiments in their backyard testing concepts to see how they can make better systems. The farm slowly morphed into an agribusiness. In 2020, after successfully coming up with new systems , they incorporated – merging farming with business.

So far,  they have been able to serve a wide group of clients ranging from people with backyards and balconies to commercial clients as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are  supporting   self help groups. As a result, they have been organizing tours and trainings to farmers interested in learning about vertical gardens.

A shade house with vertical towers.

Benefits of vertical gardens

Ruling out the costs of setting up hydroponics, the merits outweigh its disadvantages. According to Fred Kimani the cofounder, there are many benefits of using vertical gardens. “The main advantage is you get to save  eighty  percent of your water,” he notes adding that water wastage will be minimal as excess water will be safely harvested and stored making it ideal for semi arid areas. So, vertical gardens serve as an ingenious solution for people who live in arid and semi arid areas.

“You also get to produce  three hundred   percent more produce per square metre,” he adds. The towers increase space for growing crops by almost threefold. People with minimal spaces yet want to grow their own vegetables can opt for the vertical gardens. What is   more, if done on a large scale,  the cost   of setting up the towers goes down . A standard commercial greenhouse will cost you around Kshs. 3,000 per square metre whereas smaller residential ones will cost Kshs. 5,000 per metre.

Kimani also observes  that   with hydroponics, a farmer is able to completely avoid common soil-borne diseases like Fulsarium and bacterial wilt which plague  most tomato farmers. Elimination of soil borne diseases ensures there is   minimal use of pesticides.

“Also growth time is  fifty   percent faster than in traditional farming due to targeted nutrition,” he states. With hydroponics, a farmer is able to give a plant the nutrients it needs through irrigation. Pumis only serves to hold the roots of a plant. Places with warmer climate will experience even faster growth rates. Since the vertical gardens are often used in shade houses, plants are exposed to adequate sunshine which is good for most leafy vegetables.

Strawberries planted on vertical towers.

Irrigation

Vertical gardens can be irrigated through two major irrigation systems: gravity-fed and automated irrigated system. In gravity-fed irrigation, a tank is placed at an elevated stand where water flows to the systems in response to the law of gravity. Excess water is collected in a drain gutter and stored in an underground tank.

The second way, automated irrigation can run on solar or electricity. It eliminates the need of an elevated tank. A pump is fitted inside an underground tank which will pump water based on time schedules using a programmable timer. The farmer can set the preferred times for irrigation. The time schedules ‘tell’ the pump what time to supply water to plants. Excess water is collected and taken back to the underground tank. All this process is automatic – it doesn’t need human involvement.

Vertical gardens are ideal for almost all vegetables, herbs and flowers. “You can grow almost anything with hydroponics. It’s only that, there are a variety of systems that cater for different crops,” Kimani opines. For example, you can grow almost any vegetable on the stepped crate system.

However, most farmers opt for high value crops like cherry tomatoes, spinach, coloured capsicum, coriander, blue berries, straw berries among others. Vertical gardens done in a greenhouse have superior results and faster growth rates as compared  to the ones in   open air set ups. Nonetheless , it can be practised in the open.

A stepped crate vertical garden system with a variety of vegetables.

Hurdle

“Lack of information is our biggest challenge. People are used to soil. So changing that mindset from soil to hydroponics can be a bit of a challenge,” Mwithigi laments. “But once you overcome that information barrier, a   lot of change can happen.” Most people are skeptical when they are told that they can convert their backyards or balcony area into a kitchen garden that can supply them with vegetables.

Products

Some of their products are maple trees, trough systems that have water recycling systems and stepped crate system which is ideal for residential gardens. Moreover, they offer a tower system that has the capacity to hold  thirty six   plants and recycle excess water.

Road ahead

“We look forward to setting up massive commercial farms for clients who are looking to either export or cultivate produce for local market,” Kimani shares. As a company,  they are also exploring opportunities outside Kenya in places like Rwanda. “The main goal for us is to get more people to embrace vertical gardens. We are keen to make people self-sufficient when it comes to food.”

His word to youths: “Whatever idea you have, start small. It doesn’t have to start as a big thing. Just start with what you have. If it’s something of worth, people will buy your product. Have determination, be consistent and start as soon as you can with what you have.”

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