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Farming comes to town

Dossier: Small-space agriculture

People are being forced to produce food in ever smaller spaces due to rapid urbanisation, land pressure and outmigration of rural workers to cities, among other factors

© Giada Connestrari

Small-space agriculture

Feeding the world's growing population – two-thirds of whom will live in urban areas by 2050 – calls for agricultural innovation to facilitate food production in ever smaller spaces, especially in cities.

With cities expanding and climate change placing greater constraints on agriculture, the agrifood sector must innovate to be able to feed people in urban areas. In this constricted setting, how can more food be produced in small spaces, and at affordable prices? Rapid urbanisation, land pressure and labour migration to cities often go hand in hand with difficulties related to unemployment, poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. Solutions to these challenges are nevertheless available.

“In areas with poor or polluted soil, and in urban centres (rooftops and patios), technologies like hydroponics and aquaponics provide a means of farming where it may otherwise not be feasible,” says Austin Stankus, aquaculture consultant for the FAO Climate Change Adaptation in the Eastern Caribbean Fisheries Sector project.

In Antigua, for instance, the Indies Greens organic farm is an aquaponics pioneer. In practice, plants are fertilised and irrigated with nutrient-rich water from fish tanks. The plants absorb the nutrients (fish excrement) and thus recycle the water, which is then pumped back into the tanks. This technology uses nearly 90% less water than conventional agriculture and can be applied in small spaces, in turn, enhancing vegetable crop yields and producing fish using less labour and chemical inputs.

The aquaponics option was selected in response to two environmental factors, says Larry Francis, owner of this small company with six employees. “Firstly, Antigua is a semi-arid island with frequent droughts which have, in recent years, become more severe and prolonged. Secondly, Antigua is only 280 km2 in size, thus limiting the land space available for agriculture. Aquaponics offers the possibility of recycling water while generating high crop yields with a reduced soil footprint.” Indies Greens produces and locally markets around 14,000 t of tilapia and 52,000 lettuces yearly on just 0.3 ha (3,000m2) of land.

Better harvest, sales and profit potential

In Barbados, the Ino-Gro Inc farm has opted for a much more sophisticated hydroponics system: 40 ft containers have been set up to grow leafy vegetables and herbs using a fully automated system that is managed online. The temperature, humidity and LED lighting are measured by sensors and remotely adjusted in real time via a mobile app. Substantial seed capital had to be raised for this initiative, but the results speak for themselves as the company sells 40 kg of produce every week to restaurants, hotels and households.

“Hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming offer a potentially lucrative and low-risk farming option to introduce young would-be urban entrepreneurs to the food sector in Africa,” confirms Michael Sudarkasa, CEO of the Africa Business Group, a company that provides consulting on African economic development projects, in a CTA Blog. “These three systems offer a version of soil-less farming, representing farming methodologies that can be set up on relatively small areas of land – even within containers or movable structures – and which, given their short production cycles of 7-8 weeks [compared to several months under conventional agriculture], provide greater opportunities than traditional crop farming to harvest and sell produce and earn income.” Salads, tomatoes, herbs and spices are mainly produced under these conditions.

The private sector has a role to play in the development of these technologies and agricultural practices to facilitate the adoption of this type of agriculture. “The private sector needs to be involved in providing/selling not only high quality inputs [e.g. aquaponics tanks] at reasonable prices”, Stankus points out, “…but also needs to invest in training their staff in order to be able to provide professional high quality technical assistance, while taking into consideration factors such as integrated management of genetic resources, soil health, water management, pest and disease management.”

This is partly what Aquaponics Kenya in Nairobi is doing. In 2013, its CEO Peter Chege began developing and marketing systems that help farmers produce livestock feed in soil-less conditions. Aquaponics Kenya and its 13 employees have so far installed 5,000 of these systems and trained livestock farmers on running them in Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda.

The benefits of hydroponic and aquaponic farming

International support for urban agriculture

By 2050, more than two thirds of the world's population will live in urban or peri-urban areas. In sub-Saharan Africa, the urban growth rate is 3.6%, which is nearly double the average rate worldwide, as noted in the overview of last year’s Brussels Briefing on ‘Growing food in the cities: Successes and new opportunities.’ Recognising that cities must produce part of the food that their inhabitants consume, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact was signed on 15 October 2015 by representatives of more than 100 cities, many of which are located in ACP countries. Among other obligations, the signatories committed themselves to, “Develop sustainable food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse.”

FAO and the cities of Milan (Italy) and Dakar have been developing an urban micro-garden project in Senegal since 2006. Nearly 10,000 people have been trained in centres opened in Dakar's 19 communes on the use of raised micro-gardening tables for growing herbs and salads. Ten years later, about two thirds of the trained people were found to be still practising micro-gardening, 52% of the micro-gardens were generating produce for self-consumption, while 48% produced vegetables for sale in local markets.

“Urban agriculture is a key lever for solving insecurity and nutritional problems in urban and peri-urban areas,” claims Coumbaly Diaw, FAO coordinator for the project in West Africa. “Micro-gardens are tailored to the population density and enable families to produce vegetables and spices at home so as to supplement their diets with vitamins and trace elements. The technology is very simple and inexpensive and anyone can cultivate a micro-garden. Being a closed-cycle system, the water is recycled and therefore costs little.” However, strong public sector commitment is needed for this type of initiative, explains Diaw, since municipalities manage the urban space and choose whether or not to include these projects in the city's development plan.

According to FAO, urban agriculture has many advantages: “Because locally produced food requires less transportation and refrigeration, it can supply nearby markets with fresher and more nutritious products at competitive prices.” Moreover, growers can earn more since they can dispense with middlemen, and have better access to urban markets. Nevertheless, urban farmers/growers, need to aware of the potential, health and environmental risks associated with use of contaminated land and water, or the leaching of inappropriately handled pesticides and raw organic manure into the water system.

Wealth creation

Yet, the benefits of urban farming outweigh the drawbacks. Producing food in small spaces is now inevitable in Nigeria, the most densely populated African country, which also has a growing urban population. The hydroponics company Fresh Direct Nigeria set up business with a staff of six on the outskirts of Abuja to meet this challenge and grasp the opportunities. By combining vertical and hydroponic agriculture in shipping containers converted into container farming units, the company grows as much produce in a 14 m2 space (20 ft container) as could be produced on a football pitch and a half, says Angel Adelaja, the company CEO. All of this is accomplished with little water and few inputs.

As Fresh Direct is located in a peri-urban area, it can readily supply its customers – mainly wholesalers and restaurants – without having to transport fragile salads, tomatoes and cucumbers (now available year-round) over long distances, which accordingly cuts market prices. The company switched to solar power this year to overcome its initial energy supply problems, thus avoiding frequent power outages and the need for power generators.

In a Brussels Briefing session on this topic, Henk de Zeeuw of the RUAF Foundation (a global partnership on sustainable urban agriculture and food systems) explained that in most African cities, 20-30% of the inhabitants are already involved in urban agriculture, while 70% of them earn a living from this activity. Investing in urban agriculture can thus have a substantial impact. “Every dollar invested in urban food production will generate US$1.4-2.6 (€1.2-2.3) in revenue for food sector companies, i.e. in transportation, processing, composting, etc.”