Food Security Solutions Achieving Market Independence

Farmer sitting on a tractor looking over a field.
Not all farms in Central and Southern Africa have their own tractors. Farmers can now use an app to share their farming equipment. | Photo (detail): Oleksandr Rupeta © picture alliance / NurPhoto

Many African countries are suffering from the surge in food prices, which is why more and more people are seeking regional solutions to combating the food crisis – with considerable success.

Joshua Kiamba carefully lifts a young spinach plant out of a small flower pot and places it into a halved plastic bottle full of stones. He then puts the bottle into a somewhat unusual raised bed: rather than growing in earth, the plants, together with the plastic bottles, are kept in a grow tub full of water.  Known as “hydroponics”, this cultivation approach involves providing the plants with a mineral nutrient solution. “This is a practical method because we have so little space here,” explains Kiamba, who describes himself as a “passionate organic farmer”. Kiamba doesn’t live in the countryside, but in Korogocho, one of the slums in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. And it’s not only space that is in short supply there – for most families money is too, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the dramatic rise in the cost of living in recent months. The price of cooking oil has doubled in some cases, while milk, household gas and cornflour – the most important basic foodstuff in Kenya – have also become much more expensive. This is partly due to the fact that the government has significantly hiked the taxes on many products because the country is experiencing a debt crisis and the government is desperately seeking further sources of revenue. It has doubled the VAT on propane gas from eight to 16 percent, for example. 

Since February, the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been making matters even worse. Production outages and export problems from Ukraine have tightened the supply of many foodstuffs, driving up their prices. Energy costs have also surged, as Russia is a key producer of petroleum and natural gas. When fuel becomes more expensive, this also has an impact on products including foods, as almost everything has to be transported before it reaches the end consumer. The food price index compiled by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was a good 23 up on the previous year’s level in June.

Low-income countries, especially in Africa, are particularly hard hit by these developments. Within their societies, those who suffer most are the ones with the least money at their disposal. Many of them live in rural areas and are already battling with the effects of the climate crisis: extreme weather events such as frequent droughts and flooding are causing in some cases drastic crop failures. This can quickly push small subsistence farms into acute hardship. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that as many as 828 million people worldwide are suffering from hunger. 50 million people are on the brink of famine, above all in the Global South.

Farming Despite a Lack of Space

Numerous innovative ideas aimed at combating the current food crisis are being generated in the southern hemisphere. This is not the first famine that the African continent is experiencing, and scientists have for many years been developing strategies to improve food security in Africa. They are looking for ways to provide rural populations and people on lower incomes in cities with enough food despite the climate crisis, war and other catastrophes. One of them is Peter Chege, an analytical chemist from Kenya and founder of the company Hydroponics Africa. His research wanted to discover which nutrients plants need to produce particularly good yields. This is how he came across the hydroponics approach, and recognized its potential for Africa. Water and fertile soil are scarce in many regions, a shortage that is being worsened by the climate crisis. “Growing plants in a hydroponic system requires 80 percent less water than traditional farming methods,” says Chege. What is more, no land is needed, so the quality of the soil is irrelevant. Hydroponics is an ideal method, particularly when food needs to be grown in confined spaces, as the systems can easily be stacked on top of one another.

The commercial cultivation of plants in a nutrient solution was invented in the USA. However, modern hydroponics drew its inspiration from examples in early history such as the hanging gardens of Babylon and the floating gardens in China. Though Chege based his systems on the American model, he first had to adapt it to the African context. “I made sure that we used locally available materials, I trained farmers in how to use the method, and I produced a suitable nutrient solution that had not previously been available,” explains Chege.

Finding an alternative to electric pumps, which are used in western countries to feed the nutrient solution through the system, was perhaps the most important step in the adaptation process. Chege also wanted to find a different light source for the plants, one not powered by electricity from the socket. “If I had simply taken the European system and transferred it in unmodified form to Africa, it would not have been cost-effective here,” he explains. “The cost of the energy alone would be more than farmers could earn with their plants.” In Chege’s “African” hydroponics system the water remains still rather than being in constant flow. The plants get their light from the sun or via solar panels, allowing farmers to save electricity. In 2013, Chege founded the company Hydroponics Africa and further adapted the system to regional specificities. For the most part this meant simplifying the methods and reducing costs. These days the firm has a range of different sizes to meet varying needs and budgets. Anyone who simply wishes to supply enough vegetables to feed their own family will have to pay the equivalent of around 100 US dollars for the system, while a system for commercial farmers costs on average 4,200 dollars. Hydroponics Africa has already sold 8,000 systems to customers not only in Kenya but also in neighbouring countries in East Africa, explains Chege.

Using Drones and Plant Diversity to Fight Climate Change

People in the south of Africa are also considering ways to address the challenges posed by climate change and the rising prices on international markets. In Zimbabwe, a company called FarmBuzz believes that digitizing farming is the right way forward. The organization Tsuro-Trust is following a more traditional approach, using a seed bank to support farmers.

Raising Productivity in Agriculture

Jehiel Oliver is also keen to promote the production of regional foodstuffs. “I asked myself why people in African countries spend so much money on food even though they could grow what they need themselves,” recounts Oliver, founder of the “Hello Tractor” app. More than 70 percent of people in Nigeria for example work in the agricultural sector. Nonetheless, not enough food is produced there to feed the entire population. Christian Borgemeister, one of the directors of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn, explains that this is chiefly because the crop volume per unit of acreage is not sufficient. “If you look at the global trend for yields of key crops such as corn, wheat or rice, you will see a kind of linear increase in yields in pretty much all regions of the world. But not in Africa,” is how he sums up the problem. As the scientist goes on to explain, where productivity in African countries did increase, this was because the growing acreage was expanded at the expense of forests and savannas, not because better yields per square metre were achieved.

Oliver wants to find a solution to this central problem in African agriculture: the lack of the machines needed to commercially work the fields and thereby attain higher yields per square metre. After all, machines work more quickly, which can also be an advantage in view of the climate crisis. When the now rare rain actually comes, the soils need to be loose to ensure that the precious water does not simply run off. Furthermore, mechanizing farming – in addition to improving soil fertility – is one of the keys to improving productivity and achieving a higher-yield crop.

In 2015, Oliver created the “Hello Tractor” app in Nigeria with a view to raising productivity. He was fascinated by the challenges and opportunities that the West African country offers with its more than 200 million inhabitants. The company has now set up a second headquarters in Kenya. The “Hello Tractor” app is used in 13 African countries. It allows farmers to share their farm equipment such as tractors and ploughs. Around 3,000 tractors with various types of equipment are registered on the platform. In Kenya alone, the app is already being used by more than 40,000 farmers to rent or rent out machinery. A fee is charged when a tractor or other piece of equipment is booked. Depending on how the machinery is to be used, it costs roughly 20 to 30 euros. 90 percent of this goes to the owner of the tractor, while the remainder goes to the company – a win-win situation for everyone.

Though it will still take some time before they have their own independent food production systems in place, many farmers in African countries have now recognized the potential offered by domestic agriculture. Especially in countries that find themselves hard hit by the food crisis, people are working on ways to boost their own productivity with new farming techniques and creative solutions in horticulture.