- Hydroponics is becoming popular in Kenya due to its efficiency and increased output
- Some of the most common type of plants grown using hydroponics is vegetables
Hydroponics is a system of growing crops without soil. Hydroponics farming in Kenya has been gaining popularity due to its effectiveness and ability to deliver better results to soil-based farming.
Unlike other conventional farming methods where the soil is a key requirement of crop cultivation; hydroponics only requires water and nutrients to promote plant growth. Therefore, in this system, farmers grow crops in nutrient-enriched water.
This enables farmers to control crops output by controlling the number of nutrients in the water.
The hydroponics farming system is fast growing in Africa and Kenya alike, as farmers look for ways to increase crop yields on their small pieces of land.
Let us look at the benefits and disadvantages of hydroponics farming.
Benefits of Hydroponics Farming
1. Saves water
With 1 in 3 farmers facing water scarcity, the only solution is to embrace water-saving farming methods such as hydroponics farming.
This is possible as it enables the farmers to have total control over the amount of water crops are consuming. It is estimated that hydroponics farming saves 80% of the water that would have been used in conventional farming.
Therefore, this farming model is applicable even in arid climates. In hydroponics, the only possible water wastage would be in the form of evaporation and water leakages. However, in an efficient hydroponics system, the water leakages are minimal.
2. Elimination of crops soil-borne diseases.
Growing crops without soil help to eliminate soil-borne diseases from crops. These diseases are common in conventional farming and end up affecting both the quality and quantity of the produce.
It also helps reduce the costs of fighting these diseases through the use of pesticides. Ultimately, hydroponic crops tend to be healthier and more competitive in the market. Some of the diseases that affect soil-borne crops are Fusarium and Pythium.
3. Faster crop growth
Since you are providing the plants with all necessary nutrients, they do not have to expend any energy trying to absorb nutrients. It is this factor that promotes the faster growth of hydroponically grown crops.
For example, fodder grown by hydroponics takes 4-7 days to mature. The same fodder grown by conventional means takes a few weeks to mature.
4. Increase in the crop yield
According to the available data, a hydroponics system produces 4 times more yields compared to conventional farming. Since the hydroponics system is controlled, you can grow crops throughout the year regardless of the season.
Some of the factors that contribute to the increase in the crop yield include faster growth of crops ensuring you can have more output within a certain period. The low level of diseases also ensures crop destruction is minimal.
Finally, the ability to optimize nutrients input ensures the crops have the optimal conditions necessary for growth.
The hydroponics system is flexible on how and where it can be practiced. It enables the growing of crops in both indoor and outdoor environments.
Due to its ability to fit in small spaces, it also allows growing a sizeable number of crops in a small area. Finally, it enables the growing of crops across all weather conditions. This takes care of dry areas with water scarcity.
6. Weed elimination
Weed remains a key challenge in the conventional farming methods that rely on the soil.
However, the lack of soil in hydroponics farming eliminates weeds. This also eliminates the costs of weeding that end up increasing the costs of production in traditional farming.
Lack of weeds also ensures the produce is healthy as weeds are nutrient competitors.
7. Low labor requirements
Hydroponics farming system requires less labor as compared to the traditional farming systems that are labor-intensive. On average, the hydroponics system requires only 1 hour of maintenance per day.
In the long run, this results in fewer labor costs making it competitive and sustainable.
Disadvantages of Hydroponics Farming
Hydroponics farming method has its challenges such as;
High startup capital requirement
Setting up a hydroponics system is capital intensive. This is because you have to acquire the equipment and the nutrients.
This is different from conventional farming where the farmer doesn’t need to set up some of this equipment.
High training levels requirement
Operating a hydroponic farm requires high-level training for both the owner and the employees. This is because you have to understand key elements such as how to set up the farm, Nutrient requirements, and the types of crops to farm.
The learning process is time and money-consuming adding to the already high start-up costs. To learn, you can either choose to use free information available in places such as the internet or engage a professional at a fee.
This happens when crop roots get long resulting in system blockages. Channel clogging requires constant monitoring to unclog. In the long term, this process could be costly both in terms of resources and affecting crop production.
Types of Hydroponics Systems
There are 6 different types of hydroponics systems that you can use to do crop farming. Each of the systems has its unique advantages and challenges as per the breakdown below.
1. Wick system
The Wick system is the simplest hydroponic system as it doesn’t require electricity function. This technique is also the oldest form of hydroponics and has been in use for thousands of years.
This is an ideal technique for beginners and farmers with low capital capability. It is called the wick system because it uses a wick to deliver nutrients to the roots.
It functions by placing water solutions below the plants. One end of the wick is placed in the solution while the other end is placed in the growing medium surrounding the roots. Therefore, the nutrients travel along with the wick to the roots for absorption.
Advantages of a wick system
- Ideal for small plants and herbs, since they do not require a lot of nutrients.
- Passive technique – once it is set up, the plants will absorb the nutrients on their own
- Low-cost system since it does not require electricity.
Cons of the wick system
- It is ineffective for large plants since the wick does not provide sufficient nutrients.
- It results in a buildup of toxic mineral salts that require constant monitoring to flush out every 1 -2 weeks.
2. Deep water culture (DWC) hydroponics system
In this technique, roots are directly submerged in the nutrient-enriched water solution while the upper part of the plant is held secure by net pots. The supply of oxygen to the roots happens through an air pump.
This is necessary to ensure the plants have access to adequate oxygen to facilitate optimal growth.
Advantages of deep-water culture technique
- It allows easy and direct absorption of nutrients by the plant. In return, this ensures the plants have a faster growth rate
- Has low-cost maintenance.
Cons of Deep-water culture hydroponic technique
- Suffocation of plant roots when oxygen supply is insufficient
- Increase in the chances of root diseases in case of dirt in the system.
- Unfavorable for larger plants and those with a long growth period
3. Ebb and flow/flood and drain hydroponic system
This technique involves ‘flooding’ your crops with the nutrient solution for a specific time after which you later drain it. This cycle is repeated regularly until the crops achieve the right growth level.
Plants are normally put in a growth medium then transferred to a growth bed. The next step is to flood the bed with a nutrient solution for a specific amount of time.
Although this system is favorable for the majority of crops, it is not favorable for large plants. Once the water has drained back into the reservoir, use an air pump to oxygenate the water.
Advantages flood and drain technique
- It allows water recirculation making it efficient in water management and usage. Ultimately, this is key in the reduction of production costs.
- Lack of constant exposure of plants to water reduces the chances of toxic mineral accumulation in the water.
Cons of the flood and drain technique
- Since the flooding and draining have to be controlled, it can lead to water oversaturation or drying out without a proper execution strategy.
- This technique requires constant monitoring making it time-consuming in comparison to other techniques.
4. Nutrient film technique (NFT)
The nutrient film technique involves supplying a plant with a thin film of nutrients. Normally, the nutrient solution is held in a reservoir below the plants. An air pump is then connected to the reservoir to facilitate oxygen supply to the solution.
Delivery of the nutrients to the plants is done through a pipe system above the reservoir. The plants are held up by net pots, while their roots dangle to access the nutrient solution. A key point to note is that the plant’s growth channel has a sloppy design.
The structure has an opening that allows excess nutrients to drain back to the reservoir. This system runs on electric power to pump the water and the air through the system.
Advantages of the nutrient film technique
- Unlike other hydroponic techniques where plants are grown in a growth medium, the NFT technique supports plant growth without the use of a growth medium.
- The capability to recycle water makes the technique efficient and cost-effective. This also makes it suitable for areas with water challenges.
Cons of nutrient film hydroponics technique
- The presence of overgrown roots could cause clogging affecting the overall performance of the system. Hence, it requires constant monitoring to ensure this doesn’t happen.
- Loss of power affects the system. Since the system requires electricity for the constant pumping of water and oxygen, power loss can negatively affect the system.
- The use of electricity makes the technique expensive. The costs could also rise if the power is not reliable and hence the need for alternative backup such as a generator.
5. Drip hydroponics system
This system involves pumping the nutrient solution to individual plants through a tube. These plants are usually held in pots. A valve is normally installed at the plant base to control the amount of solution delivery.
Advantages of a drip system
- Allows control of the amount of solution delivery to each plant. This ensures there is optimal production and output.
- Effective for both small-scale and commercial purposes. However, it is more cost-effective for commercial purposes.
Cons of a drip system
- Requires regular monitoring of pH and nutrients level. This makes it time and consuming increasing the labor costs.
- It is prone to wastage of water if the system doesn’t support re-circulation. This makes it ineffective in areas with water challenges. It also adds the cost of water affecting the overall production costs.
- This system requires a huge startup capital due to the need to install some equipment such as the valves.
6. Aeroponics technique
The Aeroponics technique involves growing plants by suspending them in the air. This allows the roots to absorb adequate oxygen. The aeroponics system is complex and capital intensive to construct. However, it is highly efficient.
The system has spraying nozzles connected to the reservoir. They are positioned below the roots to spray the nutrient solution directly to the plant.
The system allows you to select the mist spraying cycle that is favorable for the plants. The mist cycles constantly expose the plant roots to the nutrient solution, though not to a high extent as the flood and drain technique.
Advantages of aeroponics technique
- Allows exposure of plant roots to oxygen. This is critical for the plants’ growth and survival.
- Constant supply of the nutrient solution to the plant roots. Since nutrients supply in the form of a mist spray, it minimizes the risk of over-saturation and under-saturation of the nutrients.
- The system requires minimal maintenance.
Cons of the aeroponics technique
- It is capital intensive to set up. Aeroponics is among the most expensive structures to set up among hydroponic structures. This makes it a challenge for small-scale farmers to set up.
- Due to the reliance on pumps, any failure causes a huge disruption in the production process. To minimize this, you should ensure there is constant monitoring of the pumps.
How to Start Hydroponics Farming in Kenya
1. Market research
Market research is a critical first step to understanding the key details of the system. This helps identify factors such as the best system to use, the types of crops to grow, market availability, and the necessary capital to have.
Below are some of the factors that affect the crops to grow in hydroponics farming.
- Market demand
- Farming costs
- Profit margins
- Size of the plants
On the system to use, the deep water culture (DWC) technique and the wick system are suitable for beginner farmers who are on a low budget.
Hydroponics farming is more technical than traditional farming. Due to this, you need some training to help farm efficiently and profitably
There are various ways through which you can learn. You can choose to self-train by reading books or watching online tutorials.
However, you can do the formal training through doing to a training institute. This comes at a fee but is the most ideal because you learn practically.
3. Investment if the hydroponic system
After doing market research and getting the right training, you can now proceed to acquire the system of your choice. In Kenya, you can purchase the equipment from various sales outlets such as Hydroponics Kenya.
Below are some of the hydroponics requirements that you will need to invest in
- Hydroponics nutrients
- Hydroponics systems such as trays, pot nets, germination chambers, air pump, air stone, and support frame
- Greenhouse- Farming works better in a regulated environment hence the need for a greenhouse. This helps control elements such as pests and light.
You can also invest in some other elements such as soil analysis to have a better understanding of the right crops and conditions to grow them.
4. Starting the farming process
The farming process starts once you are through with the other processes. At this stage, everything should be clear. As a business, you follow the best practice to ensure it is sustainable.
Some of these include ensuring the crops are of the highest quality, cost reduction, and striving to get the best prices in the market. You should also focus on sales and getting competent employees in case the farm is big.
According to projections, global hydroponics will be a $16 billion industry by 2025. This is an indicator of the huge potential available in this market.
The other advantage is that demand for food keeps growing by the day with the increase in population and change in lifestyle. This means that farmers are looking for more efficient, cheaper, and faster methods of production to remain competitive and profitable.
Hydroponics farming in Kenya is becoming attractive as farmers realize the benefits. Some factors such as water scarcity and limited land resources are also making farmers pursue hydroponics.
However, hydroponics farming in Kenya in the future if the country is to become food sufficient and secure. It will also enable farmers do profitable and sustainable farming.