Hydroponics is slowly finding its way into the Kenyan urban setting. Unfortunately, limited knowledge of the innovation is hampering its spread. This article will share the basics of Hydroponics farming for the benefit of prospective farmers interested in the venture.
By Mercy Chepchumba (R.Grad EBK)
1. Introduction to Hydroponics Farming
Most people living in urban areas buy their groceries from local vendors and supermarkets, a practice that increases their costs of living, and may prove unsustainable, more so, in an environment of scarce financial resources. Hydroponics offers a way out this problem, by enabling farmers in urban areas to grow their own food within the confines of their homes. All it takes is to identify an open space such as a balcony at home, and using it to grow food via a hydroponics farming system.
At the most basic level, hydroponics farming entails growing crops in an alternative media other than soil. Instead of using soil to grow crops, hydroponics farmers use water nutrient solutions or inert growing media such as sand and perlite, to host the growing plants. Roots of the crops come in direct contact with the water nutrient solution or any other media used in the farming system, from where the plants extract nutrients and oxygen for eventual growth and full maturity. Since hydroponics farming system does away with soils, the alternative media used to host the plants must have a well-balanced nutrient content, an appropriate PH and any other ideal condition required for plant growth.
2. Advantages of Hydroponics
Increased rate of crop growth- Studies show that crops mature at a 25 % faster rate in hydroponics system compared to soil based systems
Increased crop productivity – Studies show that crop yields are about 30 % higher in hydroponics systems compared to soil based systems.
Efficiency – Hydroponics systems are highly optimized, and as such, nutrient and water wastage is minimal.
Easy to manager - Compared to soil based farming systems, hydroponics farming is much easier to manage, more so, when the system is automated.
3. Disadvantages of Hydroponics
Initial costs – the capital costs of setting up a hydroponics system are quite high and may be beyond the reach of some urban farmers. Nevertheless, compared to buying land for farming purposes, hydroponics is far much cheaper
Time constraints – Hydroponics system take time to set. This may be an issue for farmers in urban environments. However, the returns are worth the effort and the time.
Risk – Hydroponics system use pumps for water and nutrient circulation. Failure of the pump may lead to poor circulation, which may damage plants in a very short time.
4. Key success factors in Hydroponic systems
As already shared, hydroponics systems supply water and nutrients to the plant directly using an alternative media to soil. Thus, to work effectively, the system and adopted media must have all the essential elements that would otherwise be found in soils. These elements include
Support-The farmer should provide the required support system to hold the plant in place as it grows
Nutrient-The adopted media should have all the essential nutrients that would otherwise be found in soil
Oxygen – The adopted media must have an adequate supply of oxygen in levels comparable to those found in soils
Water – The adopted media must have water, to supply the crop water requirement, that would otherwise be got from the soil
5. Components of a Hydroponics system
Nutrient solution – This solution consists of the appropriate quantity of nutrients dissolved in water
Nutrient reservoir – The nutrient solution is stored in a reservoir, which to the extent possible, should be made of nonmetallic material to prevent reaction with the solution, which may release chemicals that may contaminate the crop
Grow Trays – This is where the plants grow and is usually separate from the nutrient reservoir
Delivery system - The system delivers the nutrient solution from the reservoir to the grow trays. Additionally, the system drains excess solution by taking it back to the reservoir.
Pump - Pumps nutrient solutions from the reservoir into the grow tray. It also circulates the water in the reservoir thus keeping it oxygenated, discouraging algae growth.
Growing medium - This is the medium in which the plant grows. It could be Rockwool, perlite, vermiculite, coconut fiber, grow rocks, or air.
6. The process of Hydroponics farming
The farmer mixes the nutrient solution as per the plant’s requirements. The solution is usually a specially formulated liquid nutrient mixture, required for plant growth- it should be of recommended PH and the water used to mix the solution should be portable. The pump then pumps the solution to the grow trays from the nutrient reservoir. Usually, the grow trays are slightly slanted for the solution to move along the trays by gravity, and subsequently, the remaining solution flows back into the reservoir.
Alternatively, the nutrient solution could be fed to the plants using the gravity method as shown below. However, a pump is needed to pump the solution to the elevated tank.
With current global increases in population, the cost of acquiring farming land, especially in urban areas is rising by the day, limiting the feasibility of soil based farming in towns. Furthermore, more people are migrating from rural to urban areas, putting a strain on urban food systems, a trend that if unchecked can precipitate to increased food insecurity. By capitalizing on available spaces within homes in urban areas to grow crops, Hydroponics offers a sustainable way of generating food, thereby alleviating the state of food insecurity in towns. The farming system is also a viable source of livelihood and can open up profitable entrepreneurial opportunities that urban youth can take advantage of.