Dar es Salaam. Two Tanzanian youth, who viewed horticultural challenges as a business opportunity started exploring and customizing soil-less farming by using modern technologies.
Today, the duo have every reason to smile after their business venture expanded five fold in a relatively short period of time.
Based on their idea, the two young men won $5000 (about Sh11 million) from the Royal Danish Embassy and Sahara Ventures in 2019 – a sum which has enabled them to expand their business investment, ‘Smart Hydroponics,’ by five times.
Praygod Japhet and Dickson Mallya came up with the idea of a risk-free, soil-less farming technology in 2018 after discovering that the horticulture industry in Tanzania is dominated by small-scale farmers by about 70 percent.
But, these smallholders are highly vulnerable to climate change, whereby Tanzania is generally over-dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Almost invariably, this leads to low, unreliable and inconsistent productivity, thus failing to meet markets standards in terms of quality and quantity.
Mr Japhet is the AgriTechs Company Limited managing director. Speaking to The Citizen, he revealed that “the company focuses on harnessing the power of modern technologies and digital advancement to create smart, sustainable, environment-friendly and affordable solutions to problems that are facing the agricultural sector in Tanzania - and Africa in general.
“Since we established the company last year, we have done a number of things, including the installation of machines on commercial, individual and government institutions, as well as local government councils mostly in Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Tanga and Morogoro,” Mr Japhet said.
“We have seen the technology working well because the demand for the products involved increased. We have had a number of pre-orders for our machines from clients - and we do the installation ourselves for different customers.
“But, largely due to the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic last year, some of our clients had their pre-orders withdrawn – thus making us lose something in the region of Sh20 million,” Mr Japhet lamented.
However, he said, they plan to establish a large commercial system for vegetables farming in 2024 for both the local and export markets. As it is, he revealed, Saudi Arabia has already approached them, requiring their company to export eight tonnes of vegetables after every three weeks indefinitely.
This, he confidently said, can be done simply by enhancing the farming technology they use.
“After having assurance of markets, we want to promote sustainability by strengthening systems which will enable us to sell our products and services… Currently, we already have a model which we will use to attract and retain customers,” he reveals.
“For the past two years, our customer attraction model has been based on targeted marketing whereby we focus on individuals and organizations that we believed we could recruit much faster.
“These are the ones who have an idea on the potentials of ‘controlled environment agriculture’- and who don’t have difficulties in making decisions. But also, we used our small-scale model to promote the product on social media as a way of recruiting more customers,” he said.
“The standard price for installation of the technology is $500. But, this amount could sometimes be less - depending on the size of the customer’s backyard and indoor space,” he said.
According to him, through the technology, plants are inserted on the top of containers which have a solution of water and plant nutrients - thus reducing the water loss by 90 percent.
The technology initiated by AgriTechs Company Limited targets people who want to reduce expenditure on crop farming in urban centres where people don’t have large areas on which to cultivate their own food crops – and have to spend most of their income purchasing foodstuffs.
Japhet noted that urban dweller spend up to 70 percent of their monthly income to buy food.
“So, we came up with the innovation so as to assist them to grow crops on their premises, thus helping them to reduce their expenditure on food,” he says.
The gateway system takes information from sensors and sends it to the Cloud platform which then sends the information back to the customer’s mobile ’phone with recommendations on what to do in case something about the soil-less farming tech is not right.
“We also get the same information through the dashboard system, so we can help our customers to solve a problem in case we see they aren’t addressing it soonest. All this is done in a matter of seconds,” our Japhet boasts!
Horticulture in Tanzania is arguably the fastest-growing sub-sector of the Economy within the agriculture sector. It is estimated to have an average annual growth of 10-12 percent: far above the three percent growth per annum of the agriculture sector overall.
How the technology works
Smart hydroponics is a product that combines soil-less farming and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, aiming to make climate-smart farming and urban farming affordable, profitable and convenient.
With smart hydroponics, the Japhet/Mallya AgriTechs Company Limited looks to enable more horticultural farmers to farm independent of the climatic condition by creating a specific environment which a specific crop requires in order to perform well.
Further, the system enables farming on small spaces with up to 500 percent yield increase; reduces water use by 90 percent - and saves hundreds of hours that would be used to monitor a farm manually through irrigation automation, as well as remote and real time monitoring of the farm through a web or mobile phone application.
Additionally, the system shortens crops growth period by 25 percent, promotes growth of herbicides-free food, encourages precision in management to avoid losses – and, undoubtedly, enables farming throughout the year, thus ensuring consistent supply of healthy food to the market.
With smart hydroponics, farmers are able to grow different types of produce, ranging from leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, swisschards, etc), to herbs (coriander, mint, sage, kale, basil) and vine crops (tomato, cucumber, zucchinni, strawberries, blubarries, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cherry tomatoes).
Earlier, a ministry of Agriculture official, Mr Obey Assery, said adoption of the technology would increase food supplies in Tanzania!
“The government alone cannot afford to implement every project – and, therefore, we very much support such initiative in the agriculture policy,” Mr Assery said.