Smallholders catch up with the big boys of soil-less farming

Saturday March 22 2014

Aldric Spindler executive director Red Land Roses during the interview at his farm in Ruiru Kiambu County on March 4, 2014. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU (NAIROBI)

Aldric Spindler executive director Red Land Roses during the interview at his farm in Ruiru Kiambu County on March 4, 2014. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU (NAIROBI)  

By PETER ODUOR
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Aldric Spindler energetically walks towards one of his mega-greenhouse structures at his farm in Ruiru, Nairobi. It has been a long and busy day for everyone at Red Land Roses (RLR), a 50-acre cut flower farm on the outskirts of the city.

The French agronomist uses unfamiliar farming technology to grow flowers — hydroponics. Hydroponic refers to growing crops without soil. It makes use of water with soluble nutrients necessary for the plant and inert (empty of elements) media (substrate) like sand, rock pebbles, coconut peat, pumice, rock wool, macadamia husks and coffee husks.

“We use inert substrates, and then bring in the minerals used to grow the plants. This way we can control nutrients taken in by plants, whereas in soil one is hardly able to know if they are putting too much of anything,” Spindler said.

The substrate is used to support plants.  In Spindler’s case, he uses murram from the farm and pumice from Naivasha as inert media. The substrate is sieved and grated before use. The medium contains no nutrients. 

Since he started farming over two decades ago, Spindler has stuck to this type of farming—a method that was informed by a number of reasons.

“We wanted to control the growth of plants. The second reason, water is a scarce resource and in hydroponics, one is able to recycle it. We get back the drainage from plants (water and dissolved nutrients).

“So, we make big savings on fertiliser and water because nothing leaks into the soil,” he says. The drained water is recollected, sterilised and reused. Spindler saves 40 to 60 per cent of the water. This means less than 50 per cent of fresh water is returned to the recycled water.

“Another important thing is the protection of the environment because nothing leaks to the soil. We have no nitrate or phosphate getting into the soil,” Spindler says.

Senior lecturer in horticulture at Egerton University Anold Opiyo says the technology is common in the horticulture sector. The technique can be used in agriculture in general, although it is a challenge for small-scale farmers, since it is capital-intensive. It also works best in greenhouses where temperatures are controlled, Dr Opiyo says.

Still, a number of smallholder farmers are trying their hand at it. Farmer and director of Hydroponics Kenya James Wainaina is using the technology.

Hydroponics Kenya is an association that brings small farmers using the technology together.

Wainaina has practised hydropinics for three years to grow vegetables and fodder. He uses the technology to grow fodder and vegetable, “but I apply it more to fodder,” he said.

He first soaks his seeds for four-to-five hours and then incubates them for two days to allow the roots to develop before putting them on aluminium trays to grow. The seeds are then spread on two trays and watered daily with soluble nutrients.

Wainaina adopted the technology after the price of livestock feed went up. “I decided to go for an alternative,” the medical scientist said. However, he first conducted plenty of research.

He says material for this kind of farming is easily available. Two kilos of barley seed produce 13 kilos of fodder, which can feed two pigs sufficiently for a day.

According to him, six days after being removed from the incubator, the barley is fully sprouted and mature. He discourages farmers from keeping the fodder in the tray for more than 10 days. Vegetables grown using hydroponics or flowers are, however, allowed to grow for as long as it will take them to mature.

Peter Chege and his wife, Elizabeth, are also enjoying the fruits of a journey they started two years ago.

The couple set up Minerals and Allied Formulation Centre, which distributes hydroponic fodder and vegetables, formulation of livestock feeds, minerals supplements and fertiliser blending.

Chege feeds his cows, pigs, poultry and fish with the fodder. “We feed the fish and poultry on the fourth day, the pigs on the sixth day and the cows on the last (seventh) day,” Chege said. 

According to him, if the fodder remains unused after the seventh day, nutrients are lost and will it not benefit the animals.

His cows feed on both fodder and dry matter whereas the pigs are fed exclusively on fodder. Chege says his cattle and pig fetch good money after being fed on fodder grown using this technique compared to normal farming. 

Classroom for farmers

Dr Opiyo says that farmers using the technology tend to have higher yields. This is because one is able to control nutrients in the plant. “It’s good because you are able to know what you need to add and the quantity,” he said. 

Chege’s farm in Zambezi, Kiambu County, is one-eighth of an acre. He has 12 farm hands. 

Besides fodder, he grows vegetables such us spinach, kale and cabbage. His farm is also a classroom for farmers interested in hydroponic farming. He has so far helped start 300 hydroponic farms, but insists on having a minimum of 50 such farms in every county.

“We train new farmers who want to start this method of farming,” says Chege, who has opened a training centre in Mai Mahiu, where he conducts courses weekly.

Timothy Ngugi, a farmer in Sigona, Nairobi, was his student. He finds the technology beneficial and easy to use. “I’m making good money from the sale of pigs I rear using this method,” he says.