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The potential of soil-less farming for urban youth

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Hydroponics, aquaponics and vertical farming offer a potentially lucrative and low-risk farming option to introduce young would-be urban entrepreneurs to the food sector in Africa.

These three systems offer a version of ‘soil-less farming’, representing farming methodologies that can be set up on relatively small areas of land – even within containers or movable structures – and which, given their short production cycles of seven to eight weeks, provide greater opportunities than traditional crop farming to harvest, sell produce and earn income. As its name suggests, soil-less farming requires no soil, using nutrient fortified circulating water to grow crops.

Although a wide range of products can be produced using soil-less techniques, a key component is that most of these are readily consumed – for example leafy greens, tomatoes and herbs – and have various potential markets, including supermarkets, caterers, exporters, hotels, health care facilities and academic institutions.

Most importantly, although soil-less farming techniques require an initial capital expenditure – which can be covered by public sector and development partner institutions working on youth employment and entrepreneurship initiatives – they are relatively easy to teach and eliminate the need to understand and prepare soils. Significantly, they can be developed within greenhouses, warehouses, buildings and containers to reduce exposure to harsh climates, and do not even require natural light, since plants grow equally well under artificial light.

An attractive option for young people

The fact that these types of farming are not labour intensive, involve technology (particularly aquaculture), and can run using renewable energy to form even more sustainable food production systems, has considerable appeal for urban youth. In Johannesburg, South Africa, rooftop hydroponic gardens are being developed as part of social responsibility initiatives to create jobs, livelihoods and food security for young people.

The overall market for such youth agripreneurs is growing rapidly, due to a number of trends:

  • As Africa’s cities continue to grow due to population growth and urban migration, and the populations of rural communities decline, there are fewer food producers, particularly for those living in urban areas.
  • The growth of Africa’s population over the past 15-20 years has led to an increase in the size of the African middle class, as standards of living improve (though pockets of poverty remain).
  • Governments in Africa are beginning to pursue policies that promote the consumption of locally produced products, value addition, and the replacement with local products of the many imported items. According to the African Development Bank, Africa imports more than US$45 billion (€40 billion) worth of food annually.
  • Local food systems, soil-less farming technologies and urban farming generally, are becoming more attractive as ways to address urban social needs – for food, to create jobs and stimulate local economic development.

One probable additional, albeit unintended outcome is that young urban farmers will subsequently be tempted to take up more traditional farming, once they have developed their client base and market linkages. Working in their favour will be the financial track record and banking relationships that they have developed, together with an understanding of the market (and how to market), as well as an awareness of the economic potential that exists within the food sector.

For all these reasons, anyone seeking to convince young people to pursue a career in agriculture and the broader food sector would do well to consider that accelerating the development of urban soil-less farming structures and initiatives represents a compelling first step to pursue!

This article was created through a CTA-led process to document and share actionable knowledge on 'what works' for ACP agriculture. It capitalises on the insights, lessons and experiences of practitioners to inform and guide the implementation of agriculture for development projects.

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