Hydroponics farming could help reduce Nigeria’s spiraling youth unemployment rate

Rising unemployment is a major problem Nigeria is contending with. JUSTICE NWAFOR writes on how hydroponics, a soilless technique for growing crops in nutrient solutions can be a way out of the quandary.

SMILEY and somewhat tired, Adebowale Onafowora walked into the sitting room of his two bedroom apartment in Abeokuta — 68 miles off Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos. He had had a hectic day and was ready to get some rest but decided to check the latest news headlines, as he would do everyday.

Normally, Adebowale would tune in to any of Nigeria’s local news channels like Channels Television and African Independent Television, but this Thursday evening was different. After a few seconds of swift, silent deliberation, he chose Cable News Network (CNN). On the screen was a documentary programme on hydroponics farming. It fascinated him and he wondered why he had not come across such. Although it looked and sounded like rocket science, he held on and watched till the end.

After the programme, he made for the internet and used available search engines to look up contents on hydroponics. “I was very elated that I watched videos and read a lot on hydroponics after the programme… the rest is history”, he told Nigerian Tribune.

Seven years down the line, Adebowale has demystified the ‘rocket science’ and has gone ahead to become one of Nigeria’s famous hydroponics farmers. In fact, he prides himself as the pioneer of hydroponics — a soilless technique for growing crops in nutrient solutions in Nigeria.

As opposed to traditional farming which involves traditional potting mixes or soil, hydroponics utilises nutrient solution or inert growing media. In the long run, it saves water and here’s how: in traditional farming, plant roots get water mostly from above the ground while they are directly suspended in nutrient solution or water in hydroponics. Experts say this system reduces crop water consumption by about 97 per cent.


Tackling unemployment

Nigeria has a heavy unemployment burden. Latest data from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) say, as of the second quarter of this year, there are more than 21.7 million people who are out of job, indicating an unemployment rate of 27.1 per cent. If underemployment — which is at 28.6 per cent — is factored in, then both figures would spike to 55.7 per cent. Of the unemployed lot, there are 13.9 million youths.

This is heavy because in the typical African society, which the Nigerian society bears greatly, there are so many dependents. This means if one person goes out of job, it trickles down to a lot more people.

For example, when a father loses his job, his children’s education is at risk. The kids may also risk malnutrition because of the heavy economic inequalities which hinder the wife (the woman) from contributing so much to stabilise the family’s finances. Also, cousins and aunts and aged father and mother risk hunger.

In a country where payment of salaries is irregular and the monthly national minimum wage is N30,000 (about $78), even the employed would be in the dependent class.

Adebowale Onafowora inspecting a fodder

Unemployment transcends the figures — it hits others who are not even captured harder.

So, when Adebowale was putting in the work to gain valuable knowledge in hydroponics, especially when he found that it could turn out to be a massive employer, he had this gap in mind. Though he was not unemployed, there were a lot around him who were.

It didn’t take too long before he realised his dreams and established BIC Farms. The farm has grown from being a small start-up to a large farm providing integrated farming solutions — an employer and trainer of employers.

“We have trained more than 12,000 people on soilless farming and they are mostly doing well. We have established over 200 farms and built over 400 home gardens”, Adebowale said. “Most of the people selling and using exotic vegetables in Lagos now buy from somebody we have trained or learnt from us.”

When John Pampam lost his job as a sales rep at a firm in Abuja — Nigeria’s federal capital — the welfare of his young kids and wife was paramount to him. He wouldn’t want them to lack basic necessities, so he wasted no time and started scouting for new and better opportunities.  It didn’t take long, he delved into horticulture.

Pampam would later realise there are great opportunities in hydroponics. So, he got enrolled and was trained by Adebowale at BIC farms. “Immediately after the training, I got employed as a manager in one of the farms in Abuja”, he said.

Buoyed by the possibilities and inherent success in running his own farm, Pampam would resign and establish Pote Integrated Farms, which is still at an early stage. While trying to set up properly, he already has five youths under his employ. “I consult for people and the five people work for me”.

When asked how the journey into hydroponics has been, he giggled and paused, his voice laced with confidence and said “I have three kids and we have been joined by three of my late brother’s kids and I am taking care of them very well”.

The Nigerian government has not hidden its desire to diversify the economy away from oil. And agriculture is at the heart of this drive. The government has come up with some incentives to make more funds and seedlings available to farmers but there have been allegations that misappropriation and mismanagement have fraught the initiatives.

Most Nigerian farmers do not rely on the incentives. Adebowale, for one, has been striving with little to no special input from the government. And a 2020 report by PWC on food security in the country found that the sector has witnessed consistent growth. For three years, the agric sector has grown at an average of 2.6 per cent, it found.

As of the first quarter of this year, the sector accounted for 22 per cent of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in contrast to oil and gas (9.5 per cent), manufacturing (9.7 per cent), financial services (3.8 per cent), and trade (16.1 per cent).

The sector is the largest employer of labour in Nigeria. Stats show it employs a little above a third (36.4 per cent) of Nigeria’s labour force. But it could do a lot more.


Tackling post harvest losses

The agric sector has witnessed some growth in recent times, but experts say it’s not enough. Here’s why: the sector is not growing in isolation. As it grows, Nigeria’s population does too. In fact, the UN says Nigeria’s 200 million population will more than double by 2050, raising fears that the food security crisis the country has faced may worsen. But Adebowale says soilless farming holds a solution.

One of the sustainable ways of reducing  and averting the food crisis is through mitigating post harvest losses. A large chunk of Nigeria’s farmers reside in hard-to-reach communities and their farms could be further far afield. Lack of accessible roads to the farms means they are not able to transport all of their goods to the cities where the markets are. Even when they are able to move them, most get damaged on the way.

Nigeria losses about N2.7 trillion ($8.9 billion) to post harvest losses annually, as of 2017, said the Executive Director, Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI), Prof. Olufemi Peters. And there are concerns that the figure has spiked, especially due to the nationwide coronavirus-induced lockdown.

In this complex, hydroponics could play a much bigger role of mitigation. The technology allows farmers to grow crops and vegetables “in commercial quantities in confined spaces,” Adebowale said. “Post harvest losses in Nigeria are huge. Half of what farmers produce do not get to the market. So, I told myself, with this technology I can shorten the distance between the farm and the market. It helps you cut off bad roads and have your farms close to your market.

“For instance, with hydroponics, what I will produce on a plot of land is what you will produce on 30 plots of land when you are using an open field method. So, why should I invest in land far into the bush while I can get a few plots in an urban centre and then build it up. This mitigates post harvest losses and that is what we have been doing at BIC farms,” Adebowale said.


The farmer-herder crisis puzzle

The farmer-herder clashes in Nigeria has deepened the food crisis. The clashes stem from access to land issues. While the herders move from the northern part of the country to the south in search of grazing land for their cattles, the farmers on whose farms some of the cattles graze, complain their crops get destroyed in the process. In the process of protecting their respective interests, violent clashes take place and farmers flee their farms and communities.

The clashes have led to loss of lives and heightened insecurity in rural communities.

In 2018, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the conflict between herders and farmers was six times deadlier than Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2017.

The crisis, Michael Uguru, professor of plant breeding and genetics at the University of Nigeria says, is still on largely because the government has not compelled cattle grazers to take responsibility. A ranching system should be developed so cattles could be fed without grazing openly. Even though hydroponics could not solve the problem totally, as Uguru said, Pampam thinks it could go a long way to reduce the clashes through what he calls the hydroponics fodder system — a system where grains are grown, usually without soil, for seven days and fed to livestock.

While Pampam served as a manager at NAT Kazashim Garden in Abuja, he experienced first-hand how the fodder system could help feed livestock at a relatively cheaper rate. The farm had a livestock section with animals to be fed daily. Weekly, it spent N50,000 (about $130) to feed the animals. But when it started using the hydroponics fodder system, the farm was able to cut cost by 80 per cent to N10,000 ($26).

“This is one of the cheapest ways of feeding animals and cubing the constant clashes between herders and farmers. With 1kg of corn, sodium or millet, you’ll harvest close to 10kg depending on how long you allow it to develop and it develops within seven days”, said Pampam. “If you allow it to stay up to nine days, it could give you up to 20kg.”


The challenges

Despite the economic incentives of hydroponic farming, many Nigerians are hesitant to accept it. It is still new to a lot of Nigerians who are yet to believe that crops could be grown without soil. And Pampam thinks more efforts should be geared towards educating Nigerians. He said he does his bits by occasionally talking about the system on his Facebook page, but his posts reach a limited number of people.

Most of the herders are spread across the country and do not have access to the internet to get information he and other hydroponics enthusiasts disseminate on the internet, especially on social media.

On the other hand, the cattle market is controlled by a few large scale farmers who contract the herders to take care of the cattles. These are the people Uguru said the government should hold responsible and make to use ranches instead of grazing openly. But the government has been accused of not having the political will to force the farmers to build private ranches.

Setting up a functional hydroponics farm takes some money. A simple 8×30-metre space farm could cost as much as N2 million (about $5,223). This is in a country where about 40 per cent (about 80 million) of its 200 million population live below $1 dollar per day. But Adebowale hopes as other farmers come on stream and BIC farm’s localised technology gets more popular, the cost of setting up would be reduced, and more Nigerians would embrace the system more.


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