10 December 2012

Cote d'Ivoire: The Miracle of Gardening Without Soil

Abidjan — In Abidjan and its suburbs, front yards, backyards, garages and other open spaces in residential areas are being taken over by soil-less gardening. Not only does this new way of growing plants and vegetables seem almost miraculous. The cultivation practice is providing an all-in-one solution for the scarcity of fertile land, food shortages and youth unemployment.

About a year ago, Raoul Attey helplessly stood by watching his market garden in the suburban neighbourhood of Port-Bouët whittle away. "Many other market gardens growing tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables were destroyed to make way for a building project," he explains.

The 26 year old is like many other young Ivorians who rely on informal gardens, set up in public or private places, to provide some form of income. And like other market gardeners, Attey was the victim of Abidjan's booming population and consequent urban expansion.

But Attey did not give up his form of self-employment. Today, he simply works on a smaller scale: in his mother's backyard. The barely ten-square-metre surface area, which he ironically refers to as his "half-plot of earth", is where Attey grows his crops. And he does so with passion. "I now produce three to four times more eggplants with twice as few means," he says happily.

Attey attributes the high yields to hydroponics, growing plants without soil.

Better yields

Soil-less gardening makes it possible to yield large harvests on small surfaces. "With the normal culture of tomatoes, for example, the best yields rarely reach 30 tons per hectare," says Jean-Luc Coulibaly, an agricultural engineer at CNRA, the national agriculture research centre in Abidjan. "With soil-less culture, on the other hand, the yield is between 90 and 120 tons per hectare for an agricultural cycle of only three months."

In this form of gardening, plants are grown in some substratum other than earth. The mixture is placed in a plastic bag or pot. Because acquiring these receptacles, substratum and organic fertilizers can be a challenge for small-scale gardeners, some use sawdust or cocoa shells in lieu of the usual coco peat.

Others, like Ghislain Kouadio, use bird droppings for fertilizer. They seem effective, too; Kouadio's backyard garden has two rows of tomato plants over an area of approximately 20 square metres. Two years ago, the 23 year old had switched to growing tomatoes hydroponically. Although he is elusive about his earnings, Kouadio confidently says that he "is much better off" compared to when he was a construction worker.

Sound economics

"Soil-less culture is a real breath fresh air," says Benjamin Eloh. The 27 year old with a Master's degree in economics decided to give it a try after four years of fruitless job hunting. Ever since, he has been producing chillies and tomatoes in an area right across from his family's yard. "A friend encouraged me to attend a training seminar on soil-less culture. At the end of the seminar, I received a manual explaining how to start a successful venture in the field," Eloh recalls.

The agricultural entrepreneur now earns between 78,000 and 95,000 CFA francs (119- 145 euros). "When one considers the small space that I use, it's truly a miracle," admits Eloh. He is now looking for more space to expand his business.

More potential

In most cases, soil-less farmers first and foremost sell their harvests, while surplus is used for their own consumption. Just like products from traditional gardening, the soil-less harvests supply urban markets. They are generally transported and sold by women.

Hydroponic culture could significantly help alleviate the food crisis, as it does not require large areas of cultivable land. Every family could set up one at home to grow essential crops. But, as Eloh, the trained economist, laments "it is still not sufficiently promoted".

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