Kayonza's hi-tech farmer grows vegetables without using soil

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Tomato growing beds, which contain stones that are first washed spotless.

A few metres off the Kigali-Kayonza highway, next to Silent Hill Hotel in Mukarange Sector of Kayonza District, lies a fenced farm, which is the Centre for Innovative Technologies in Agriculture and Construction (CITAC). It is a special farm and a training centre to-be.

The centre stands out, thanks to its unique farming systems – land optimisation by growing crops vertically in a greenhouse, where specially-created containers or beds are filled with stones to keep nutrient-laden water sift through, a farming practice commonly known as ‘soilless’ culture, Livingstone Byandaga, the CITAC proprietor, says.

The enterprise is applying an agricultural concept called hydroponic, which Byandaga says is defined as ‘working water’. “Simply put, hydroponic farming is the art of growing plants without using soil,” he adds.

This reporter was amazed by the farming systems used at the farm. There is, for instance, nature auto-nourishment, whereby water pumped from a fish pond irrigates crops, and goes through the stones before draining back into the pond for the fish to thrive.

This advanced way of farming seeks to tackle the problem of land scarcity, Byandaga says, adding that it will also help improve nutrition in the country by increasing crop and livestock farming on a small piece of land.

“This is not a business per se, but a research centre with a purpose of transforming agriculture in this country to respond to various problems. We want to train different people on these farming systems so that they can propagate the initiative to different communities,” said Byandaga, who is also the programme manager for the Skills Development Fund under the Workforce Development Authority (WDA).

“We are currently growing tomatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, lettuces…This is basically a pilot phase where we are testing various crops to know those that can thrive better using this technology. This is a production unit and I am going to do market research to know what Rwandans need most,” he explains.

Origin of the idea

Byandaga says he heard about hydroponics from friends last year during an informal conversation and he was hooked by its uniqueness. He later carried out individual research to understand it better, he says.

“My friends said that soilless culture was being practiced in Kenya. Considering the scarcity of land in this country and how soil loses fertility over time, my mind went directly to dairy farmers who lack cattle feeds because they do not have enough grazing land or money to buy artificial feeds.

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One of Byandaga's employees tending to tomatoes at the centre.

During my research, I found out that we can grow grasses on a small space by using multi-storey gardens, thanks to this technology,” he said.

Byandaga discovered through research that hydroponics is a part of aquaponics, an aquaculture system where the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water. In short, this is a combination of growing crops in water and aquaculture, whereby the fish in ponds feed crops in a multi-storey garden.

Byandaga says when the project started he was mixing minerals in a reservoir and could manually pour the water in crop containers (referred to as ‘grow beds’) to nourish the crops, which he says is the cheapest way to use the farming technique.

“There was no fish pond at first but later, I made a fish pond which replaced the minerals that I was using to feed crops,” he says.

How the system works

Isaac Mugema, the operations and training manager at CITAC, says they trap and harvest rainwater, which is then channelled into the fishpond.

He says, with fish waste in the water, this means water has to either, keep moving or be filtered to provide the necessary aeration for the fish.

“So, we pump water to the crops whose roots are held in a fish net which traps the nutrients and water goes back to the fish pond when it is clean,” Mugema explains.

He said they use stones, which they wash before planting the crops to keep pests at bay, as well as remove the dirt, as it is also dangerous to the fish.

“This also prevents weeds, meaning that crops will benefits maximally as there is no competition for the nutrients,” he says. 

“If you give a plant exactly what it needs, when it needs it and in the right amounts, it will flourish. This is easy to do in a soilless culture than where crops are cultivated in soil. Since the project started, our statistics show that soilless culture gives better yields compared to ordinary farming,” he said.

Mugema, who had a study tour of Kenya’s soilless farming enterprises, says this farming method is one of the top income-generating farming approaches.

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Cabbages at the centre.The centre uses soilless culture where crops are grown without any soil or sand. (All photos by Jean d’Amour Mugabo)

“If one considers the income from fish sales, such a project could generate millions of francs monthly.

“A fish produces at least 500 fingerings every two months; so as they are growing one sells the old ones.

“Crops also grow twice as fast compared to the soil farming. Actually, we harvest in two months after growing and the yields are double that of the soil-grown crops,” he points out.

Byandaga says, with the pilot phase of project ending soon, he plans to construct two more fishponds to maintain the balance of fish and crops, making their cycle successful.

This will also kick-start full production at the enterprise.

“As fish multiply, we need to expand the ‘grow beds’, and that does not mean we need hectares of land; we will grow vertically and the sky is the limit.

“This greenhouse has 240 square metres that is still unutilised…We need to optimally exploit it,” he says.

He says the pilot phase has cost Rwf4 million, noting that commercial-driven production will initially cost over Rwf10 million.

The centre will also start offering courses about the farming systems to interested farmers starting next month.

“Many people do not easily understand how one grows crops without soil, but they should understand that it is not the soil per se that feeds a plant, but nutrients from soil do. So, the plant will still thrive when it gets those nutrients from elsewhere,” Byandaga notes.

Full commercial production in pipeline

Byandaga says the project’s main mission is to play a significant role in poverty reduction by doing environment friendly farming, which relies on modern techniques.

“I want to attract youth into farming activities by bringing to them this smart and less stressful farming system, where they just switch on the power as opposed to soil farming which makes farmers ‘dirty’,” he said,

“I have consulted some banks, which have appreciated the project concept… I am now preparing a business plan for loan and go commercial. In the short-term, I want to use at least Rwf10 million to construct two more fishponds and expand the irrigation systems, and Rwf4 million efficient greenhouse.

“This business will be able to repay the loan within a year,” he says.

Poultry and growing their feeds, growing cattle feeds, constructing accommodation facilities for visitors to the centre, improving rainwater harvest systems and curb water evaporation, all are on the card, says Byandaga.

The sky can surely be the limit for this innovative and hi-tech farmer.