Hydroponic Farming Technology


KENYA

Animal Mineral and Allied Limited

(Hydroponics Kenya)

The Business Model

The company I was assigned to work at, Animal Mineral and Allied, was a young social enterprise based in Nairobi. Social enterprises are businesses that trade to tackle social problems, improve communities, people’s life chances, or the environment. They generate revenue from selling goods and services in the open market, but they often reinvest their profits back into the business or the local community.

Animal Mineral and Allied, more colloquially known as Hydroponics Kenya, is the pioneer initiator of hydroponic farming technology in East and Central Africa. The company specialises in the manufacturing, installation and marketing of customised hydroponic fodder and vegetable systems to help small and medium holder farmers have access to a high quality, cost-effective and sustainable way of farming.

Hydroponic farming entails growing crops using mineral nutrient solutions in water thus reducing the need for soil. This modern and innovative farming technology is resilient to climate change, provides superior nutritional value and faster growth at limited cost of input. According to the Kenyan company, hydroponic systems are the most efficient method of both fodder and food crop cultivation in the world because they use only one tenth of the water that conventional agriculture uses, implying that no water is lost through evaporation and only a fraction of minerals. The systems also uses only a third to about a quarter of the space that traditional agriculture uses. Hydroponic barley fodder for example grows within just 7 days whereas vegetables crops grow at a thirty percent faster rate and create little or no waste to contaminate the environment. Many farmers worldwide currently believe that hydroponics will power all of the world’s food production in the near future, and thus resolving the global food crisis.

Peter Chege Gichuku (Bsc Analytical Chemistry, University of Nairobi) is the founder and CEO of the company, which he established in 2004 following a period of working in a pharmaceutical company in Nairobi. Initially Peter focused on supplying farmers with conventional nutritional supplements to enhance animal outputs. Throughout the years he learned that many farmers incurred high costs for animal fodder, and that the quality of animal fodder and vegetables was often not satisfactory. Moreover, plant diseases, climate change and population growth all raised important questions regarding food and water security in the country. To address these problems, in 2013 the company started producing hydroponic systems, which enabled farmers to grow quality animal feeds at low cost, while also provided them with the opportunity to grow all sorts of vegetables apart from tubers irrespective of environmental conditions.

The competitiveness and innovation of Peter’s social enterprise is best shown through his greenhouses that maintain the right temperature without any thermostat or electricity needed. The secret lies in using photochemically treated aluminium trays to grow fodder, which inhibit the growth of fungus and incidence of other pathogens. The temperature and humidity inside the hydroponic fodder system are controlled using only a hydro-net and a hydro-cloth, to ensure higher growth and the best nutritional value possible. The greenhouse is also constructed with water circulation system that facilities water recycling, which in results in lower water usage compared to conventional farming solutions. The company sells complete hydroponic and vegetables systems, while also providing farmers with formulated hydroponic nutrients, seeds and seedlings. In addition to supplying greenhouses and nutrition to farmers, the company offers training and demonstration of the hydroponic systems at their office in Zambezi, Kikuyu, Kiambu County, Nairobi. Peter Ceghe established a training facility with full functioning animal feed and vegetable hydroponic systems along with both livestock and poultry that is only fed with products derived from the hydroponic system.

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Scientific Basis

The basic concept behind hydroponics fodder is unlocking nutrients from 30% digestibility to up to 85%. This is due to the activity of enzymes produced by the seed after soaking. These enzymes are able to convert more efficiently carbohydrates to sugars, proteins to amino acids, and solid fat to lipids from the seed. Moreover the enzymes produce highly efficient hormones, growth promoters, vitamins and minerals. The role of hydroponic nutrients is to increase protein content in the crop from 9% to 25%. This is brought by the nitrogen component of the solution, which is converted to protein by the activity of enzymes. Scientific studies showed that 1kg of green feed are nutritionally equivalent to 3 kg of lucerne. Moreover, the protein content of oats increases from 8% as a grain to 21% as an eight-day-old green feed. The germination of barley/oats seeds activates certain enzymes that in turn change the starch, protein and fats in the grain into simpler forms in the plant. Starch is changed into soluble sugars, which are generally better utilised in the rumen. The digestible fibre content of the green feed rises from 4.2% to 9%.

Overall, hydroponic systems can be classified in two main categories: a) open system and b) closed system. In the open system, the nutrient solution is mixed and applied to the plant as required, instead of being re-cycled. Examples of some open systems are: growing beds, columns made out of tubular plastics or vertical and horizontal PVC pipes, individual containers e.g. pots, and plastic sacks. In the closed system on the other hand the nutrient solution is circulated continuously, providing the nutrients that the plant requires. Examples of closed systems include: floating roots, nutrient film technique (NFT), plastic or polystyrene pots set up in columns.

My work at Hydroponics Kenya

My work at the hydroponics enterprise begun with a research and planning phase, whereby I researched all aspects of the company including: the marketing strategies, sales figures, financial data, the performance of employees, the main competitors, partners, collaborators and suppliers in order to find the weaknesses and strengths of the company. Additionally, I carried out independent research on the processes and different models of social enterprises to better understand the business, marketing and branding process and therefore to be able to provide accurate and meaningful support. The next stage consisted of the strategy development. After identifying key challenges and strengths of the enterprise, I developed a plan with clear aims and objectives reflecting what needs to be done and how. These objectives included: improve customer service, start an online marketing campaign, craft a new branding for the company, expand the client and collaborator network and increase company exposure. The last two steps of the plan consisted of implementation of strategies and evaluation of results.

One key and enjoyable activity that I carried out was networking and speaking at various public conferences, trade fairs, share-fairs and public presentations where I represented the company and its array of products and services. Overall, I participated at five major events, where for a cumulated period of over 18 days, I discussed with hundreds of interested individuals and potential or confirmed customers and collaborators. The most important event I participated at was hosted at the United Nation’s Office in Western Nairobi and was entitled “The International Share-fair on Rural Women’s Technologies” to Improve Food Security, Nutrition, and Productive Family Farming. The event was memorable as I had the opportunity to meet important personalities and organisations such as: the Presidents of the African Union, UN Women Branch, Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agriculture Development. During the three day workshop, delegates celebrated the Intentional Day of Rural Women and the World Food Day through open discussions on matters such as: the role of rural women in agriculture, food and nutrition security and farmer research link-ages. Some key issues raised by the UN committee included: i) the importance of African women in ensuring family nutrition and household food security and ii) the numerous constraints women continue to face in accessing appropriate finance and farming technologies. Additionally it was suggested that Africa needs to increase food production by 200% by 2050 in order to meet both local and exports needs. This daring objective can only be achieved through the direct investment in innovative farming technologies, removal of gender related barriers, and empowerment of women in agriculture. These investments will in turn lead to an increase in agricultural productivity, enhance livelihoods and improve household nutrition.

The hydroponics company was a key player at the UN Sharefair, due to the numerous benefits the hydroponic technology offers to agriculture and household nutrition. Many attendees were fascinated by “our” products and offered their support to promote the company. Other public events that I participated at included: the Nairobi International Trade Fair, the 6th All Africa Conference on Animal Agriculture, the Growth Africa Investment Event, and the Scenario Planning Workshop at the

Agricultural Information Research Centre. One particularly exciting event was held at the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC), where the company is currently incubated. The World Bank President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, visited the KCIC, during his official visit to Nairobi and inspected the products and services marketed by the hydroponic company. It was a great pleasure meeting this inspirational character, fact that proves the great opportunities for increasing volunteer exposure the ICSE programme offers. The Kenya Climate Innovation Centre is a World Bank infoDev initiative, the first in a global network of CIC’s being launched by infoDev to support the development and scale up of locally relevant climate technologies.

Besides corporate networking and public speaking, I also performed a small market research using an effective feedback form and online means in order to identify the main customer profiles of the company and understand how to design the communication and marketing strategies. A key problem I identified in the company was the poor costumer service of employees. As a means to resolve this issue, I designed a customer service guide and a full training manual, which was implemented in order to improve the customer – employee experience. Another important issue I identified in the company was the lack of any form of online marketing, a rather powerful marketing tool in our modern times that cannot be neglected. I rectified this issue by crafting an online marketing strategy focused on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus and a new business oriented e-mail address, where I quantified the company’s list of clients and collaborators. I also maintained a continuous dialogue with the company’s customers via e-mails, responded to queries, received feedback and informed them about the company’s products, services and offers. Additionally, I designed newsletters and multimedia material, which in turn I shared with the growing online audience. Most importantly, I designed a new user friendly website (www.hydroponicskenya) with integrated plugins such as SEO. I also performed several training sessions with farmers at the company’s office in Nairobi, wrote a grant application, coined an investor pitch presentation and slightly adjusted the company’s business model and value proposition. Last but not least I developed a new photographic and graphic identity for the company, which is now successfully used in online marketing endeavours. The biggest achievement was the construction of a new branding strategy, which incorporated all relevant aspects regarding the visual and verbal identity of the company, promotion, advertising and communication strategies, costumer relationship and suggestions and directions for future development. The preliminary results of my direct involvement in the company indicated an increase in sales of about 50% in November and increase in online derived costumers by 160%.