How vertical urban farms kill two birds using a single stone

Elizabeth Achieng, founder ukulima tech, demonstrating the vertical system at their show farm along Ngong Road, Nairobi. PHOTO | STELLAR MURUMBA

The leafy green vegetables on your table could be carrying all sorts of harmful components, experts say as they continue to raise the red flag over quality and safety of food at our disposal.

Besides exposure to contamination, urban dwellers are increasingly keen on eating healthy a practise which is, however, thwarted by fluctuating food prices in an environment of high inflation rates.

A group of young tech-savvy entrepreneurs has come out to face these challenges head on by developing vertical farming systems that can easily enable anyone with a little space in their yard or balcony to become a small-scale farmer.

The eight-month-old company Ukulima Tech, is operated by four entrepreneurs aged between 25 and 28 and all of whom share a passion for food safety and security.

Ms Elizabeth Achieng, the chief executive of the company told Enterprise that industrialisation within cities has created a situation where land is too fragmented which is a limiting factor to engage in agriculture.

“The vertical farming technology was borne out of the need to utilise limited space to increase food production, water conservation and environmental protection,” said Ms Achieng.

“An individual does not need to worry about owning a huge chunk of land to engage in farming; your urban balcony would suffice.” Ukulima Tech’s other founders are Hansel Wangara, Brenda Anne and Ronald Kemei.

Ms Achieng, 25, said the vertical farming technology takes care of the fears of the population that is susceptible to lifestyle diseases associated with intake of food especially vegetables high in dangerous chemical residues.

Ukulima Tech’s develop its vertical gardens from plastic piping, tested soil and manure, aluminium among other accessories all dependent on a client’s specification is relation to the space available.

The vertical gardens come in various shapes and sizes but the standard system measures 1.8 feet by 1.5 feet.

So far, the entrepreneurs say they have installed over 150 of these unique systems to clients in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu with the least costing approximately Sh20,000.

Vertical farming operations, Ms Achieng said, can produce crops year-round and also increase the quantity of harvest unlike normal farming done on the ground.

For the same floor area, she adds, multi-level vertical design provides nearly eight times more growing area than single level greenhouse or traditional farming systems.

This compact model is, therefore, cost-effective in industrial estates, urban areas and other typically under-utilised environments.

“The most important part of the system is the drip irrigation component; you do not have to be an agriculturalists to know how to use it,” Ms Achieng told Enterprise.

“None of us studied agriculture in school. We have simply invested our time into research and also work with an agricultural expert in order to conceptualise various types of systems that promote urban farming.”

Ukulima Tech also offers an upgrade of the normal garden, which is retrofitted with technology that enables farmers to control irrigation (switching off and on) and lighting remotely.

“The application is programmed in a way that only our staff can install it in a customer’s Internet-enabled smartphone. The farmer controls the farm from anywhere in the world,” she said.

This technology, which is optional, sets clients back another one off installation fee of Sh25,000 with Ms Achieng stating that they have so far installed the software to about 10 urban farmers.

Researchers from the University of Nairobi in 2012 sampled sukuma wiki (kales) grown in Athi River, Ngong and Wangige and sold in Kawangware, Kangemi and Githurai markets and concluded they contained toxic substances.

The study, which was led by Carl Johan Lagerkvist of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, blamed poor cultivation and handling practices for the unhygienic state of the vegetables.

The researchers tested the kales for coliforms, a broad class of bacteria found in the environment including in human and animal waste.

Other organisms tested for was E.coli a group of bacteria some which can cause diarrhoea, urinary or respiratory illness while the third candidate is salmonella bacterium which can cause serious food poisoning.

Sukuma wiki from the open markets and those in supermarkets were found to have higher organisms associated with faecal matter than kales from farms.

These germs, mainly from water used on farms for irrigation and in the markets for washing the vegetables, was found to exceed levels recommended by the World Health Organisation.

High levels of contamination with salmonella were detected on samples collected from farms in Wangige and the open market in Kawangware.

“We aim to sensitise the society on sustainable use of environmental resources in food production while ensuring that the society is aware of hazards arising from improper utility of farming methods and farm inputs,” said Ms Achieng.

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