Going vertical in Kenya
Increasing land productivity by stacking up plants vertically is not new. Popular in Victorian times with the use of strawberry pots to force indoor, out-of-season strawberries and in modern-day landscaped gardens using a variety of vertical growing systems, vertical gardens for food production offer numerous advantages. Briefly these include:
- Increased production per unit area (up to six fold)
- Efficient on time, labour and water
- Provision of good agricultural nutrition
- Can be accessed by all
- Low land requirement (as low as 3 sq meters).
How we got into vertical garden bags in Kenya is by accident. We were running a company (Real IPM; realipm.com) in Kenya and employed about 100 people in the year 2010. We had a staff canteen and provided lunch. We were concerned about their rather limited diet: many Kenyans just eat ugali (maize meal) and sukuma wiki (kale). As two horticulturists, we thought we could add variety and improve the nutrition of our staff by showing them different things to grow and eat. We had some spare land, and out of this developed the kitchen garden. However, our staff at home often did not have spare land to cultivate and therefore Louise began to develop ideas around the vertical bag garden. With a lot of trial and error a reproducible formula was developed for growing a range of crops in vertical bag gardens. What developed initially as an idea for our staff to take home soon began to generate external interest and people wanted to buy the bags. Some of the key components of the bags’ success are as follows.
Bag material should be resistant to UV light. Recycled fertiliser bags will soon disintegrate. A local shade-net manufacturer was contacted, and today they are made of shading netting with a seven-year guarantee. Currently we have three full-time seamstresses (Figure 1) sowing the bags to the various designs we sell.
Getting the nutrition and growing media right. These bags will be producing leafy vegetables for seven to nine months, so getting the growing media right at the beginning is critical. Constructing and filling the bags so they remain stable and upright. This is definitely an art. Bag filling needs training, and an instructional booklet was prepared to show potential vertical bag farmers how to prepare their bags. This featured in an episode of Shamba Chef (Shamba Chef, 2017.
Season 1, Episode 10: Mama Njoki, Limuru.)
Seeing is believing. You can talk the talk, but the belief is when the potential bag farmer sees the productive bag. At our farm, vertical bags are shown in full production at various ages (Figures 2 and 3) all year round. The crops suitable for growing on the sides of the bags are mainly leafy vegetables (eg spinach, kale, amaranth), while in the top of the bag the choice is much more varied. Interestingly, as we are on the equator, all sides of the bag perform very evenly as no side is shaded, unlike locations more distant from the equator.
Financial viability. Whether the potential grower wants one bag or 50 bags, the conversation quickly turns to what it costs, how much water is needed, how much labour is required, and what the returns will be. At the outset we had to have the economics of the vertical bag gardens clearly defined. Our company (Real IPM) is not an NGO or subsidised operation. The manufacture, promotion and selling of vertical bag gardens was a sideline to our main business (production of biological control agents), yet the activity still had to cover its costs. Over time, the bag-selling soon began to function as a small business activity within our main business. Today we sell not only the bags, but also the plantlets, irrigation kits and environmentally friendly products used to control pests and diseases. The demand for these bags surprised even us and, as seen in Figure 4, sales continue to increase. Clearly we have been proactive in creating demand through demonstrations, local TV features and active social media such as Facebook (@RealipmCo). Our customers are very varied, although urban-based customers make up the majority. Clients have
included growers buying 10+ bags to establish their own vegetable-growing businesses, and urban middle-class customers who buy a single, small, pre-planted ‘balcony bag’ they can put in the boot of their car and eventually place on their veranda.
Louise and Henry Wainwright
The Real IPM Company (K) Ltd
This article first appeared in Ag4Dev, Vol 34, pages 34-35. in 2018.)