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Hydroponics - a simple solution to limited land

Hydroponic lettuce production in Caracas, Venezuela (© FAO)
Hydroponic lettuce production in Caracas, Venezuela
© FAO

The secret of hydroponic gardening is its simplicity. Hydroponic gardens, which feature plants grown in water instead of soil, are watered by hand or through gravity-fed drip irrigation systems. Discarded wooden pallets, lumber, bamboo sleeves, old washtubs and large food containers can all hold hydroponic gardens that can be set up on a rooftop, balcony, stairway, or anywhere with substantial bright sun, making them ideal for urban dwellers.

Because hydroponic agriculture recycles nutrients, it requires a small fraction (1/20th) of the water required for soil-based systems, while producing up to six times the yield in less than one-third the space. Energy is not a constraint because no electrical or mechanical devices are needed. And, while many urban gardeners use commercial inorganic fertilizers, organic nutrients can be derived from readily available materials, such as garden plant waste, composted chicken manure or bat guano - although the materials must be free of pesticides or other chemicals.

Gardening against poverty

The garden beds, made from anything which does not allow light to penetrate (preventing algal growth), are often lined with waterproof black plastic. The growing media can be made from any number of locally-available materials, including bamboo, coconut fibre and gravel. In Senegal, for example, gardeners use a mixture of rice hulls, sand, peanut shells and peat moss.

Some basic education and support is, however, required for people to establish their first hydroponic garden. Responding to this need, the Institute for Simplified Hydroponics (ISH) was founded to teach people to become self-sufficient through hydroponic food production. The organisation uses a combination of internet-based education, hands-on training programmes and assistance with funding. ISH Board President Peggy Bradley reports that they sell or give away about US$10,000 of educational materials annually.

An educational approach

A floating bed of lettuce nourished by a hydroponic solution (ISH, Mexico City)
A floating bed of lettuce nourished by a hydroponic solution
ISH, Mexico City

The most successful ISH projects have been in Cuba and Venezuela, where they have received strong government commitment. Bradley emphasises that "this support allows the project to expand to those in need. Tied to a social welfare programme, it works well." In Venezuela's oil-dominated economy, the poor are 85 per cent urban. Urban agriculture provides a way to tackle urban poverty whilst reducing the need for imported food. ISH - along with experts from Colombia, Cuba and Senegal - has provided technical help to city projects in Caracas, supported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) "Food for the Cities" programme and by the government. President Hugo Chavez was initially given advice on hydroponic gardens, which currently number over 4000, by Cesar Marulanda, an ISH board member. The President has stated that he would like to see the number of hydroponics gardens expand to 100,000.

In Dakar, Senegal, projects supported by ISH, FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture have resulted in the training of over 5000 people and the creation of over 3000 gardens. In Zimbabwe, where the AIDS epidemic has created millions of orphans - many of whom are forced to leave school to produce their own food - ISH has partners in two demonstration projects which will help children learn how to feed themselves. In Lima, Peru, ISH teaches hydroponics in high schools, and a contest for the best school garden has been held since 1998.

This girl, who is an orphan, has learned how to grow lettuce, beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions and celery (ISH, Mexico City)
This girl, who is an orphan, has learned how to grow lettuce, beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions and celery
ISH, Mexico City

Growing for development

In Mexico, ISH supports city projects in Tehuacán in two illegal slums and in the women's prison, Rancho Cabras, Zoquitlan and San Pedro Cholula. Additional funding is provided by private donors, government, employees of Cadbury Schweppes and Rotary International. ISH-Mexico founder and coordinator, José Martín Atela Echevarría, says that a large number of children abandoned by their families due to food shortages are now benefiting from school-based ISH projects. In addition to growing techniques, children also learn how to make infusions and extracts of onion, garlic, basil, oregano, and other medicinal plants to sell at local markets. "Once the children learn these skills," says Atela Echevarria, "many are able to return home."

Atela Echevarría emphasises that government funding can be a constraint. "Funding is very short, about six months," he says, "and what we do requires more time. We first need to meet the right people in the communities, develop mutual trust and confidence, and learn lessons from errors and successes. All this can take up to two years." He is pleased to report that a private donor has recently donated ISH-Mexico a house with land to use as their headquarters.

But the pride comes in seeing the results "What is great is to see how poor children can have access to high quality vegetables free of pesticides and watered with potable water," says Atela Echevarría. One family, like many others, has a beautiful garden tended by their 10-year old boy. "Local teachers are taking children to visit his family garden, and you cannot imagine how proud this small boy is and how much this is contributing to his own personal development."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: March 2007

 

Have your say

It is most inspiring. But i have adoubt whether hydroponics ... (posted by: P.Rambabu)

Excellently written. I am a high school student from Pakista... (posted by: Haider Ali)

Your article is inspiring.I am from India and wish to teach ... (posted by: Geetha Sellamuthu, India)

 

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