My First Encounter with Hydroponics in South Africa
In this blog Dish reflects on his first encounter with hydroponics and how he came to be inspired by this growing method.
In 2016 I went on a backpacking trip across southern Africa, I unknowingly stumbled across an urban hydroponic farm which grew lettuce. This experience left me inspired by the simple and pragmatic system and how much it was able to produce.
Starting the backpacking trip
After three years at university and an extra year of saving up to travel I was really longing to go back to my birthplace, Zambia. I wanted a real adventure unlike any holiday I had back home as a child. I wanted to hitchhike and camp out in my hammock and tarp wherever I could find the opportunity. When I got to Zambia I spent some quality time with family and then promptly packed my bag and headed south to Victoria Falls.
Visiting sustainable farms
One goal of my trip was to visit lots of farms practicing Permaculture. Permaculture is a framework and philosophy for creating sustainable ways of living, it is a combination of the words permanent and agriculture. Those who practice it aim to create long lasting, ecologically harmonious and productive systems. What was and probably still is the greatest example of sustainable agriculture for me, is the foraging forest garden. These are densely layered food systems using high levels of biodiversity to increase the symbiotic relationships between plants, animals and invertebrates to grow the most with no chemical inputs.
I spent some months in rural Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa visiting and volunteering at various off-the-grid farms that practiced Permaculture. Seeing the diversity of produce that these farms were producing was very inspiring, as well as the various farms’ designs, which depended on their unique locations.
Stumbling across the hydroponic system
I also travelled through some cities on my trip, one of those was Mbombela, South Africa (previously named Nelspruit). The Funky Monkeys Backpackers had camping spaces available so I headed straight there, not least because of the eccentric name. It was night time and getting dark so I set up camp and had a few beers at the bar before retreating to the hammock.
The next morning I was woken by the sound of drilling. It was a friend of the owner who was constructing what I now know to be a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic system. When I arrived the night before I hadn’t realised almost all available car parking and garden space at the lodge was reserved for growing heaps of lettuce. I sat with him and picked his brain on how he was putting it together, it initially seemed somewhat complex.
The system was made from PVC piping with holes sawed out from the top. The lettuce plants sat in net pots receiving a nutrient solution which is pumped in. The pipes were mounted onto wooden uprights at a slight decline so water can continually drain out. The drainage system was rudimentary, using sheets of tarp to channel water back into the reservoir.
My first impressions
At first I was sceptical about the system. The first thing which caught my eye was the amount of plastic which was used and how man-made it all felt. This was likely because I had spent some months living in what felt like paradise at well established Permaculture farms. In retrospect it was a shock to the ideals I was holding.
Understanding the hydroponic system better
I stayed at the Funky Monkeys for a week more and with further reflection the system slowly grew on me. I realised that there weren’t many great examples across southern African cities of simple, effective urban farming like this. The space was previously just an under-utilised garden and car parking space. They had created a minimal viable product with easily obtainable materials and beneficially used the hot climate and ample sunlight to grow thousands of heads of lettuce per year.
South Africa is a water scarce country and I spent a lot of time at farms that did a lot to conserve the little water they had. Seeing so much water flowing through this system seemed quite unsustainable. Digging a little further I learned that this system recirculated its water and retained over 60% of its water. While the system could have been more water efficient by reducing the locations where water can evaporate, it was still more efficient than some industrial farming techniques.
Lastly, the plastic they were using actually has a long lifespan and is the most durable option for these systems; it’s a far cry from the single-use plastics that fill our landfill sites. Each pipe and irrigation can grow many thousands of plants with the right care and maintenance.
All in all, this encounter with a hydroponic farm shifted my perspective on sustainable agriculture from one which was ideologically driven to one which invited modern systems to work alongside traditional systems with a common goal. Whilst I believe permaculture farms and other forms of sustainable rural farming are very important and need to be more widespread, hydroponic urban farming is a really important piece of the pie too. When trying to strengthen a nation’s food security, we should exercise all of our options. Hydroponic farms in an odd way embody a form of ecological harmony; when used in centres of high population density they deliver the freshest and thus most nutritious foods to us with a relatively small footprint.
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Dish is Square Mile Farms’ Head Farmer. He’s spent the last year experimenting with growing 40+ types of vegetables, herbs and microgreens at our Paddington rooftop farm and in our office farm installations. Using his knowledge of building and maintaining indoor hydroponic systems he is on a mission to help London workers reconnect with their food by helping them grow it themselves!