New mini greenhouse technology from the U.S. is allowing high productivity on a few small-holder farms in urban and suburban settings in Kenya.
Using locally-made materials, the greenhouses are built in a way that makes it easy to harvest rainwater. Available in various sizes, they’re suitable for urban farming, where land is often scarce.
The problem is, most farmers can’t afford them. Available in three sizes, the smallest measures 5.5 meters by 6.1 meters and is 2.5 meters tall. It costs $647.
The technology was launched in 2012 at a farm in Loresho on the outskirts of Nairobi.
The project is spearheaded in Kenya by Wanjiku Kamau under the umbrella of Mavuuno Greenhouses Ltd. Kamau has a doctorate in counselling psychology. She learned about the greenhouses from her association with Prof. Mehta Khanjan of Pennsylvania State University, the man behind the technology.
Kamau lived in the U.S. for 23 years. Winner of the Purpose Prize in 2011 alongside four other people, she returned to Kenya immediately after. Kamau says she is determined to see people adopt healthy eating habits.
The prize is given to five people each year whose work in the community can be recognized and replicated, by Encore.org, formerly Civic Ventures.
Kamau supports organic farming, which she says guarantees healthy, natural foods. Farmers who buy the greenhouse learn how to make organic fertilizers using household biodegradable waste. This reduces the cost of farming and eliminates the use of conventional fertilizers.
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Kamau is now seeking investors to collaborate with her. The market for organic foods, she says, is readily available locally and internationally. Kenya has the added advantage of cheap labor, while rich agricultural land is abundant. All that remains is for interested investors to bring more farmers on board. Kamau says that the organic foods industry is the way to go because people all over the world are becoming more conscious of what they eat.
Thirteen farmers in Kenya have already embraced the mini greenhouses, with dozens in the queue to have it erected on their farms. Inquiries by interested parties run into the hundreds, Kamau said.
The project is not confined to Nairobi and its environs. Farmers from as far as Kisumu on Lake Victoria and the coastal town of Mombasa have had greenhouse built on their farms.
The 73-year-old Kamau is determined to continue her efforts even further afield to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa. “So far, we have made our debut in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Cameroon. And we have only begun,” she said.
The greenhouse is built using wood, poles and posts – materials readily available to local farmers. The purpose of using such material is to reduce costs. Poles, wood and posts can be obtained from the farmers’ fields at no cost, unlike conventional green houses where all the materials are bought, Kamau said. Conventional greenhouses use metal poles that are not only expensive but also a health hazard, she said. Being biodegradable, wood is environmentally friendly.
The greenhouse also uses plastic pipes to bend the roof; these are easily available and cheap compared to metal. Use of pipes to bend the roof has been patented by the HESE program of Pennsylvania State University.
Mavuuno pays $600 per year for using the patented material.
The mini greenhouses, unlike conventional ones, are enlargeable. A farmer can start with a small size that suits the plot size, preferences and budget. Later, the farmer can expand to a bigger size. Mavuuno greenhouses can last more than five years and need little maintenance, Kamau said.
Instead of using commercial chemicals, farmers are encouraged to use organic pesticides such as Mexican marigold, hot pepper, wood ash, rosemary flower and neem.
Kamau welcomes interested farmers to learn about the project on her farm, and gives tips on the new technology at no cost. She works closely with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which gives extensive training to farmers who embrace the technology.
The new technology provided jobs for 16 youth trained by Kamau. They travel across the country, erecting greenhouses for interested farmers. She has also employed three agronomists who train farmers and answer questions.
One urban farmer who hopes to put up a greenhouse in her garden in Lavington estate on the outskirts of Nairobi, said she was interested in the technology due to its ease of operation.
“The benefits of using timber poles and posts that are lying in my compound as well as harvesting rain water have attracted me to this type of greenhouse,” said Wangui Nyoike. Being a widow, Nyoike said she was ready to use any available resource to bring up her children in a healthy way and at low cost.
The greenhouses come in three sizes. The medium size measures 5.5 meters by 6.1 meters and is 3.75 meters tall, allowing for taller plants. The largest is 8 meters by 15 meters.
Farmers must provide timber and manual labor, and Mavuuno youth handle the rest of the materials and construction.
Kamau says her driving force in life is to see indigenous knowledge harmonized with 21st century technology. She hopes to see more Africans adopt traditional eating habits which could guarantee them long and healthy lives.
Financing is the main challenge facing the new technology. “Even with the low prices, most farmers still cannot afford this technology,” Kamau said.
She has approached several banks and some agreed to lend money to interested farmers at minimal rates. She has also approached the county governments and the Ministry of Agriculture to finance interested farmers who cannot afford the mini greenhouses.