Their holidays were spent tilling, planting and weeding crops grown on soil. Today, they run a successful urban gardening business that is nothing like what they grew up with. Fred Mwithiga and his cousin Fred Kimani are the founders of Vertical Gardens, a business that encourages urban dwellers to grow their organic food and have fun while at it.
“Vertical Gardens is an innovative solution for urban gardening. Through hydroponics, we create farming solutions that are soil-free, maximise space and yield and are water efficient,” Mwithiga says. These solutions include the vertical pouch garden, vertical stacked garden, vertical tower garden among others.
They launched the business in April 2020 to meet the needs of people who wanted to grow their food but have limited space. “Today’s consumers are discerning, zealously guarding what’s landing on their plates. As a result, many are preferring to consume organic food and food whose source they are sure of,” he explains, adding that the pandemic also spurred demand for their service as people realised that a lockdown with no food security is a double tragedy.
Going into business last year was also a solution to their unemployment problem.
The idea behind Vertical Gardens began in 2017 when the two cousins stumbled upon hydroponics, a type of farming that requires no soil.
Armed with the conventional knowledge on crop farming and pest management, they concentrated on finding new materials to grow crops in, organic farming as well as farming in tiny spaces.
“We grew different crops on different materials before coming up with what we currently offer the market,” the 27-year-old says at their farm in Kinoo.
“Our start-up capital was Sh150,000 which we used to buy grow media, nutrients, a pump and materials for building a greenhouse and the hydroponic equipment. The result is what you can see.”
The demo farm is a 6 by 3 metre greenhouse. The green double pouch garden contains 128 strawberry plants. The plants are grown in pouches— 64 on either side— propped up by metal stands.
On another pouch, there is a healthy crop of spring onions, several varieties of herbs and spinach all grown together.
This garden set up along the walls in an urban setting, will turn them from dull, concrete spaces to living, colourful and productive areas of one’s home.
The vertical stacked garden, ideal for small spaces like balconies, verandas and backyards, contains lettuce, spinach and kale that can feed an individual for three months. It can carry up to 30 plants.
The advantages of these gardens are many.
“If we were to grow the strawberries on the space within this greenhouse, the maximum we'd have is 50,” Kimani says, adding that such efficient use of space increases yield by up to ten times.
Watering is done through a piping system that allows for self-irrigation and water recycling. This, the 24-year-old says, reduces water wastage by 90 percent. In addition to this, there's no soil involved.
“We use pumice because it’s affordable. Furthermore, unlike soil, it doesn’t compact when dry and neither does it get waterlogged so there’s no root rot. This type of farming is also weed-free. No spending hours under the sweltering sun weeding like we did growing up.”
So far, they have installed 100 vertical gardens kits in residential areas within Nairobi.
Cost of garden
Three stacked gardens, which is their best-seller, costs Sh7,500 while the single and double pouch gardens go for Sh30,000 and Sh40,000 respectively. A single and double tower garden cost Sh23,000 and Sh40,000 respectively.
Prices include seedlings, grow media, and for the pouches and towers, the irrigation system.
The response has been phenomenal as people get to experience the joy of farm to fork right from the comfort of their homes. About 80 percent of their clients are first-time gardeners.
However, clients are not just looking to have an urban garden. According to Kimani, aesthetic play a role too. Urban gardeners want their gardens inviting and well kept.
While Mwithiga is more of the people’s person, having done a degree in marketing, Kimani is the one behind the garden design and irrigation system since he studied engineering.
Like every other business, they have their own challenges. One is mindset change as some people still believe that soil is the beginning and end of farming. The second one is the newness of the concept.
“Hydroponics is still synonymous with growing flowers and not food. Therefore, we have nothing to compare ourselves to and this slows down buy-in,” the marketer-turn-entrepreneur says.
Looking to the future, Vertical Gardens plan to work with landlords to make all high-rise apartments food secure.
“If well planned, any space can be converted into a food basket,” Kimani says.