From a distance, the crops at the home on Ngong Road, Nairobi look like they are growing on air.
But as one moves closer, the six 5m-long pipes in which the plants are growing and the grey metal bars supporting them become clearer.
Picking weeds from the sukuma wiki (collard green) plants is Brenda Anne. Brenda does the work diligently to ensure everything goes right at the garden they call a demonstration garage.
The 27-year-old runs the garden with three of her friends under the company name Ukulima Tech in an agribusiness venture that targets urban dwellers.
Her partners are Ronald Kemei (26), a communications officer, Hansel Wangara (28), an aeronautical engineer, and Elizabeth Onyango (24), who works at the Technical University of Kenya.
Brenda and Wangara work full-time at the company, the former as the administrator and the latter as the operations manager.
“Through our company, we develop and install modern gardens that can be set up at the balconies or small urban compounds,” says Brenda.
Elizabeth, the CEO of the company, recounts that they started the project mid last year as a trial at a home in Kiambu and when they realised it could actually work, they decided to go commercial by investing in it Sh140,000, money they raised together.
To make the gardens, they buy plastic containers, PVC pipes and metal bars from hardware shops.
They then make the structure of the garden using the metal bars or wood, fill up the plastic containers with soil mixed with organic manure, install the drip irrigation system before planting seedlings or seeds.
“We normally do most of the fabrication ourselves with the help of two casuals and a welder. It’s important to note that different crops have different space needs. Some like tomatoes would need a bigger spacing than onions. This is a type of garden where you don’t get your hands dirty unless when you are harvesting,” says Wangara, who studied aeronautical engineering at the East Africa School of Aviation.
The group makes three types of gardens namely the vertical, tower and hanging. The gardens, according to Kemei, who is the marketing manager and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media and Communication from Moi University, suit different locations.
“The vertical garden can be set up indoors or outdoors depending on the client’s preference,” he says.
Trellises (support for climbing plants) are attached to the ground or large containers to allow one to grow vines, flowers, and vegetables using less space than traditional gardening requires.
“This type of garden is perfect for apartment dwellers, small-space urban and disabled gardeners.”
Spinach, sukuma wiki, onions, tomatoes, peas, basil, parsley, capsicum, herbs, chillies, mint, strawberries and indigenous vegetables are some of the crops that can be grown in the vertical garden, with a standard one having a capacity of up to 44 crops.
On the other hand, the tower garden, according to Brenda, is an automated garden that is powered using solar energy.
“The garden gives one easy control since you can use an app to irrigate it. It’s perfect for rooftops, patios, balconies, terrace and any relatively sunny outdoor places. You can grow almost any vegetable, herb, flower and fruits,” says Brenda.
“Traditionally, the space occupied by this garden can only hold up to four crops but our system allows you to grow between 16 and 26 crops,” adds Wangara.
The garden has a reservoir tank which holds water and liquid fertiliser made from earthworms.
“To know whether the pump is irrigating or not, just lift the plastic containers fixed in the pipe. If the water is dripping upon activating the app, then it is working,” adds Kemei, noting that the main reason they came up with the gardens is to help urban dwellers grow clean food.
Lastly, the hanging garden helps one to take advantage of small spaces around the home to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers.
“The garden can also be used to create a stylish outdoor ambience. Hanging gardens don’t take much space as they can be hanged or fixed on the walls,” says Elizabeth, who studied International Relations and Diplomacy at the Technical University of Kenya.
She recommends the garden for growing strawberries, spinach, onions, tomatoes, peas, basil, parsley, capsicum, herb and chilies.
To get the gardens, one parts with at least Sh16,000.
All the gardens come with either a manual and automated irrigation system. According to Wangara, for the automated system, they created a mobile phone app that saves up to 90 per cent of water used on irrigation and can be controlled from any place. The app utilises bluetooth and Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications to control irrigation.
“The app communicates via the GSM network to activate the pump which then irrigates the crops for a set time. When you click on the app, a menu appears where you select the command that you want to perform. When you click “irrigate”, the app sends a message to the automation module to irrigate the garden,” explains Wangara.
A farmer can choose to operate the irrigation manually or set it to automatic mode. The automatic mode will irrigate the garden at the specified time and switch the pump off after the specified time elapses.
“Depending on the client needs, we normally take measurements of the space where they want to install the gardens and the type of crop to plant,” says Wangara.
A client can, however, buy a standard system that is prefabricated and they install it at his home.
“The other preferred option is to give us the measurements of the space (we do site visits for those who are close to Nairobi), then we customise the system for them.”
So far, the four, who were friends for years before starting the business, say they have sold 16 units to clients from as far as Maseno in Kisumu, as they work on more orders.
Growing crops on the gardens minimises challenges associated with diseases. “Since the crops are not grown on the ground, this reduces chances of pest attacks. We do advise farmers to grow their crops organically because of the health benefits that they will enjoy,” says Kemei, adding that they work with agricultural officers who advise them and their customers on how to control diseases and pests.
They market their business through social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter. “We get most of our clients through Facebook. We also get other clients through referrals and during agricultural events,” says Elizabeth.
But it is not all rosy. Wangara says being a relatively new farming technique, a good number of potential clients are sceptical about it.
“We hope to teach more farmers about the benefits of vertical or hanging gardens using our kind of design as these gardens are also good for landscaping. But scaling up has been a challenge because we don’t have enough capital.”
They receive orders from as far as Mombasa, which means that they have to travel with equipment and the prefabricated parts, which are not only bulky but expensive to transport. “The farmer, therefore, has to shoulder the transport costs, making the systems rather expensive.”