Goodbye soil, the future is water

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IN Zimbabwe, when people think of farming, they assume it’s happening on a large piece of land, preferably at least a hectare, with lots of healthy soil.

Most have never considered that water — infused with the right nutrients — could work — and possibly be the future for farming for urban dwellers.

Let’s take lettuce for example: the process usually starts with planting seeds in small vegetable nurseries.

After a month, the farmer transplants the lettuce plants to a larger piece of land in rows with specific spacing and depth measurements. In this method, farmers must have access to land, know soil types and soil pH levels for the plant, and the right time to plant for the right temperature (cool weather for lettuce).

For Hazvinei Kavhukatema, her farming experience is utterly different.

Kavhukatema is a 50-year-old woman with a calm, confident demeanour who leads a women’s group in a high-density area called Gadzema, in Chinhoyi.

Chinhoyi is a small city located about 100km northwest of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.

The small group of women works together to tackle COVID-19, poverty and economic hardships.

As you enter her home and see her space limitations, you cannot help but wonder how she has recently become a high-value crop farmer.

However, as you walk through her gate, you pass through a small passage to get to her backyard, and as you enter her small and modest backyard, there it is — the future of farming for urban dwellers!

This is no ordinary greenhouse. Here, Kavhukatema is growing five different types of vegetables on a five-square-metre space. This small greenhouse houses her hydroponic system and shields her crops from pests and harsh weather.

In traditional farming, she would need six to seven times the size of land to plant crops for resale.

“I do not use soil at all in my garden, just water infused with plant nutrients,” Kavhukatema explains.

“My garden has five types of vegetables: fancy lettuce, butter lettuce, triple ply lettuce, Chinese cabbage, and kale. I use calcium and hydro feed as key nutrients for my crops.”

A set of plastic pipes, buckets, a solar-powered pump, and a plant solution, which contains the nutrients that her crops need, have become Kavhukatema and her family’s source of nutrition and income.

“After every three weeks, my crops are ready to sell. I have 266 plants, and I intend to sell 200 every three weeks. Sixty-six plants are for my family’s nutrition,” she says.

Kavhukatema exhibits how the water carrying the right nutrients travels, from the 20-litre tank to the pipes, and waters and grows her crops.

She holds up a lettuce plant, looking at it with excitement and pride: “I never imagined that I could grow lettuce, kale, or Chinese cabbage with just water infused with nutrients.”

Hydroponic farming is water, nutrient, and energy efficient, using a solar-powered battery system to pump water from a drinking water source to a water tank and through the pipes leading to the plants.

The crop growth rate is three times the rate of traditional farming.

Kavhukatema is a participant in a United States Agency for International Development (USAid)-funded Urban Resilience Building Programme that is pioneering various innovative income-generating projects for 140 000 households in 19 urban areas across Zimbabwe.

USAid partners, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Lead Trust trained her in hydroponics, providing tools and skills to kickstart this hydroponics project in her backyard.

“Hydroponics is a soilless cultivation technique that enables plant growth in arid or peri-urban areas. It uses up to 90% less water and 75% less space, while producing crops that grow 100% faster than traditional agriculture,” says Danisa Dube, an agronomist for WFP.

“The programme opened my eyes,” Kavhukatema says.

“Now I am delivering my vegetables to the Chinhoyi University (CUT) group of hotels, namely CUT Hotel and Orange Grove Motel. They buy my vegetables every three weeks for US$100 to US$150 depending on the type of vegetables available.

“With the money I get, I buy groceries for our family, pay water and electricity bills, and also invest back into my business. The women in my savings and lending group visit me to check if the vegetables are really growing without soil. They can’t believe it’s possible.”

Caught unaware

Hundreds of thousands of families in urban Chinhoyi have suffered because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When lockdowns occurred, people lost jobs and businesses shut down. You can almost see their journey, in their faces and voices.

“When COVID-19 hit, my husband had to close down his welding business. We had no customers. It was our only source of income,” says Kavhukatema.

“We sat in our house in silence — no money, no food, no plan — and with a disease and lockdowns we did not understand.”

Her story is one too familiar for many urban households; they were already struggling before COVID-19 and caught unprepared when the pandemic hit.

“I used to enjoy the privilege of being a housewife and waiting for money from my husband,” she says. “Reality finally struck. I had to get up and be resourceful for my family to survive.”

Today, her husband and daughter are supporting her to manage the hydroponic system.

“We take turns caring for the crops, so that we get the best possible yields,” Kavhukatema explains.

Adopting lifesaving innovations for urban dwellers

“For struggling families living in high-density urban areas, many cannot afford to meet their basic food needs. Through hydroponic farming, people grow vegetables such as lettuce, kale, tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, broccoli, green beans, peas, cauliflower, and amaranth,” says Elliot Takaindisa, the country director for Lead Trust.

Lead Zimbabwe provided the nutrients for Kavhukatema crops when she started hydroponic farming.

Now she is buying her own nutrients and expanding her business.

She plans to start growing nutrients so she does not have to buy them.

She also intends to train other women so they too can produce vegetables at a larger scale in their backyards and sell them in bulk.

Says USAid Zimbabwe acting mission director Priscilla Sampil: “ The situation in urban areas is dire. Urban food insecurity is a relatively new phenomenon in Zimbabwe. However, we are aware of reports that show that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already declining economic environment, causing many to struggle to meet their basic needs.

“USAid is pleased to support this response to the rising food insecurity in urban areas. Such programmes help families make choices regarding what they want to eat and help them start viable income-generating projects.”

USAid’s Urban Resilience Building Programme improves agricultural and livelihood practices, such as mushroom farming, rabbitry, poultry production, soap making, and technical training in digital and business skills, non-food value chains, for 140 000 households in urban areas. Of these, almost 1 200 are focusing on hydroponic farming.— medium.com