Oluwatosin Aretola, 21, is one of the many young people in Nigeria who believe in the nation’s agricultural potential. In 2021, as a 400-level student of the University of Abuja, he went for the compulsory undergraduate Industrial Training (IT) programme in Ogun State and started growing leafy vegetables. Although he had access to land in the state, he used hydroponic farming to grow his vegetables.
Mr Aretola said he started nurturing the idea of becoming a farmer in his early days as an undergraduate but he had neither money nor access to land in the Federal Capital Territory. Despite the huge potential of Nigeria’s agricultural sector, access to land is a challenge. But the undergraduate believes that the challenge can be overcome by using less land to grow crops.
“I am practising soilless farming because a time will come when there won’t be enough land for farming and we need to grow crops for human consumption,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
Mr Aretola is the founder of Agric Learner, a hub that trains young people to grow leafy vegetables using soilless farming. He said he has trained about 300 young people on home gardening and soilless farming.
Urbanisation and land ownership
Urban transformation in Nigeria is opening new windows of opportunity in the economy. But such opportunities may elude many young people operating in the agricultural sector of Africa’s most populous nation.
The main reason for this is limited access to land for lease and ownership in urban centres, considering that most land in urban centres is used for housing and commercial activities. For many young people in urban centres who find farming attractive, concerns around land availability remain.
In comes hydroponic farming as a sustainable solution.
Hydroponics is an agricultural technique in which a water-based nutrient solution is used in cultivating plants in place of soil. Hydroponic production systems are used by small farmers, hobbyists, and commercial enterprises.
But this method of farming also has its own challenges.
“I want to practise hydroponic farming here in Abuja. I have the knowledge but I don’t have the capital to construct a greenhouse for it,” Mr Aretola said.
“I also don’t have materials like rice husks that will replace the soil. It is difficult to acquire that here. I also don’t have the market to sell my produce.”
Another hydroponic farmer, Samantha Okoligbo, is a beneficiary of the Mastercard Foundation training where young people are taught soilless farming. The vegetable farmer said she started on a small scale as she could not get funds to expand her business.
Mrs Okoligbo noted that finance remains a major source of concern as the farming system is capital-intensive.
“I don’t have money to buy land in Lagos or Osun, it is affecting my productivity,” she said.
The farmer, who resides in Lagos but manages a farm located in Osun, said she cannot afford land in both states. In April 2023, she enrolled for training in soilless farming.
“Hydroponic farming is very cost-intensive,” she said.
“I enrolled for a programme Enterprise for Youth in Agriculture (EYia) work where young people, mainly females, come together to learn greenhouse construction and growing of exotic vegetables. On the plot of land allocated to us, we have raised one greenhouse. It’s an interesting experience.”
Oluwadarasimi Adedapo, the founder of Simi Agroplace, shares a different experience. Her first farming experience was soilless but she found that it is expensive to practise.
Ms Adedapo, a student of Crop Protection at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), trains young people on how to set up and practise hydroponic farming. For her, access to grants was easier before setting up her farm but she struggles to get more capital to run the training.
“The cost of setting up and materials (nutrients, system materials, seeds, etc) for practising is expensive though you get the value for the money invested as a start-up. It’s a lot of spending, especially with the increasing price of seeds,’ she noted.
Insecurity and other challenges
Hydroponic farming needs less rain and the plants are cultivated in line with prescription. Mr Aretola said the heavy rainfalls in Nigeria make life difficult for hydroponic farmers.
Another challenge is securing the farm from petty thieves and animals.
Henrietta Sunday, an Ogun State-based farmer, finds it hard to manage labour due to inadequate knowledge of some workers.
“The challenges I have faced while practising soilless farming are disasters caused by wind and labour shortage,” she said.
Like the others, Famous Tumodi and Chisom Ozumba said their biggest headache apart from financing is wind.
The idea of farming without soil is new and strange to people, especially rural people whose exposure to technology is limited, the farmers said, adding that the idea sounds weird to a lot of people, causing slow growth in the sector.
Despite the challenges, many young people are excited about the prospect of growing crops with technology. They noted that soilless farming can be practised all year round.
Ms Okoligbo said one of the advantages of soilless farming is the management of crops as they are grown in a controlled environment that ensures high yield. Also, it requires less labour and the use of pesticides and other chemicals, she noted.
“One of the impacts of soilless farming is sustainability, meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” she said.
“With soilless farming, there is high yield, right nutrition in the right amount resulting in healthy food. Also, there is less dependence on the weather.”
For Samson Ogbole, who trains young people on hydroponic farming, adequate training and sensitisation could bridge the knowledge gap in the method and improve the nation’s food sustainability. Mr Ogbole said he hopes to train 12,000 people aged between 18 and 29 within three years.
“We are taking in 1000 students per quarter. The training has provided young people with the means to generate a stable source of income and also contributed to the sustainable development of their communities.
“We train them on greenhouse sets, hydroponics and how to set up their farms in our premises within three plots of land. We connect them to the market at the end of the program,” he said.
Addressing the question of finance, a farm manager, Femi Olayanju, told PREMIUM TIMES that people can practice soil-less farming starting from home gardening using recycled bottles and rice husks.
“A 50kg of rice husk is N700, this contains all the nutrients a soil has. It is cheap to start, you can start in your backyard, but the challenge comes in when you want to start on a large scale,” he said.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.Donate
TEXT AD: Call Willie - +2348098788999