Mr Adebowale Onafowora introduced soilless farming in Nigerian in 2013 and has since trained over 10,000 people to farm without soil. When the quantity surveyor started BIC farms in 2006, he focused on re-circulated aquaculture system (RAS). After training in hydroponics in South Africa, he shifted his attention to farming without soil in Abeokuta, Ogun State. Onafowora, who among other things, is into aquaculture, livestock, value chain development, pig farming and arguably owns the largest moringa plantation and factory in West Africa, speaks to Daily Trust on soilless agric, among other issues in the sector.
How did you become a soilless farmer?
I stumbled on a documentary on CNN in 2013 which focused on soilless farming usually referred to as hydroponics. Thereafter, I searched online for further information and had to go to South Africa for some months' training.
What is hydroponics all about?
Hydroponics is about growing crops without soil. In the place of soil, other medium are used. Soil does not actually contribute anything to the plants, rather, it acts as an anchor against wind and flood for the plant. It also houses the nutrients that the plants need to grow. That is all that plants take from the soil.
There are four different alternatives to soilless farming. There is the soilless culture, which requires other medium other than soil for planting. Some of the things used in this instance are, Coconut back, which is processed and used as a medium. It has a high water retention capacity and the cation is good. Rice husk, rock wool and many others are used in the soilless culture.
There is also the pure hydroponics wherein water is the base. All necessary nutrients are deposited in the water. Plants need more than 15 nutrients to grow, we mix these nutrients in the right proportion and give it to the plant.
Asides that, there is aeroponics; here, the root of the plant is just floating in the air. The water and nutrients are mixed to touch the roots.
The last category is aquaponics, a combination of fish and vegetables farming. It has to do with re-circulated aquaculture system (RAS). When the fishes defecate, the defecation leads to ammonia build up and this mixes up with the water. We give such water to the plant and from there, our plant grows.
Another common hydroponics is water hyacinth growing on the Lagoon, the plant just grows on water, but nobody has been paying attention.
With hydroponics, we grow fodder for cows, goats, sheep and even chicken. On soil, growing fodder takes 90 days and with hydroponics, we grow it in 9 days.
With hydroponics, what we need 15 plots for, that is, one hectare of land, we can grow it on a half plot of land.
Technology makes difficult things easier. With technology, a country like Poland exports agricultural produce worth over 80 billion Euros, three times Nigeria's budget and Poland is not as big as Lagos. They use hydroponics to farm.
Eighty percent of the major vegetables we eat are planted in the North. Apart from the soil not being suitable, other reasons vegetables are not grown in the South are because the soil and humidity are not suitable.
At the Niger Delta where their soil is degraded, polluted and not suitable for farming purposes, they can grow with hydroponics.
How can hydroponics make a farmer become a millionaire?
How many farmers have one hectare? Imagine the size of Mile 12 market in Lagos. Most of the tomatoes, pepper, onions and other items there are from the North. Imagine farmers in Lagos and its suburb producing the same quantity of perishable veggies brought from the North, they will save transportation and logistics, their farm produce will still retain its freshness and they will command premium.
We have localised hydroponics. What we need foreign materials to do are now done with local materials.
A greenhouse for hydroponics that will ordinarily cost N3.5m to build now cost N1.2m and with such a structure, a farmer can grow crops that will fetch him or her N30,000 in a week and in worst case scenario, about N100,000 in a month. So, how won't a farmer become a millionaire with such a system?
What is the relationship between a greenhouse and hydroponics?
A greenhouse is a controlled environment that is created for a crop to grow. Crops need an environment to blossom.
Why does tomatoes grow well in the North and not in the South? Humidity, soil, and many other things are responsible. For tomatoes to grow well in the South, they need a controlled environment.
A greenhouse gives an ultra violet (UV) covering that filters and protects the crop from the intensity of the sun, and providing the crops with the actual intensity needed. A crop like tomato, and cucumber, does not like water to touch its leaves, many don't know. Once it's continuously exposed, it gives room for serious fungi. In a greenhouse, such is controlled. Also in the greenhouse, the farmer will be growing without soil because soil has its own diseases that are soil-borne.
Are you saying hydroponics cannot be effective except in a greenhouse?
For commercial hydroponics to work effectively, it has to be under a greenhouse. There are hobbyists, who plant as a hobby. We build some systems they put in their veranda and it grows crops for them and their family. That doesn't need a greenhouse.
Is the hydroponics fodder any better than the open livestock feeds?
The challenge of herdsmen and farmers are caused by lack of grass for the cows, they don't get enough grass to eat. This can be linked to drought, global warming. Also, increase in population. Nigeria is growing in population, urbanisation is encroaching on the farmlands.
Now, the solution is that, the way of doing things, including farming and feeding livestock must also change. Cattle breeders must look for alternatives, which can be achieved by ranching. When ranching is done, the food is brought to the cow, sheep, goats, rams and other livestock to avoid grazing. With this idea, a place where to grow food for the livestock is needed.
The fodder, the food for livestock, can be grown on a plot instead of hundreds of plots. Hydroponics fodder is over 25 percent rich in protein. It grows all year round within nine days. We convert one kilo of grains to 5 kilos of fodder.
Three weeks ago, we formed a collaboration with the first agric university in Nigeria, Landmark University, to start hydroponics and greenhouse technology centre. That will be the first university in Nigeria to start hydroponics technology as a certificate course and there will be degree that will be awarded for it.
With time, hydroponics will become an industry.
Is there a difference between the type of plant that is planted through hydroponics and the other one through soil?
Yes, there is a difference. Hydroponically grown crops taste better, stay longer on the shelf, and add more value to the body. When a crop is grown on the soil, the roots of the plant need to look for nutrients, but in hydroponics, the required quantity of nutrient is given to the plant. With hydroponics, the farmer can determine the taste, thus, he can make the tomato to be sweeter, the pepper to be hotter, and the cucumber to be more nutritious.
With hydroponics, there is nothing like soil preparation, the same crop can be grown year in year out. We do fumigation, but there is nothing like clearing of farmland, land preparation and other finance intensive logistics attached to soil farming.
In terms of logistics, what does it cost an average person to engage in hydroponics?
At the hobbyist level, hydroponics can be done with between N50,000 to N100,000. We have a vertical crop system which can grow 60 plants for N52,000. There is another that can do about 150 crops for N100,000, but, it is all at the hobbyists level. At this level, the verandah or compound is all that is required.
For commercial purpose that can give an income of at least N20,000 weekly, it will require about N800,000 to N1million. In all, for a half plot of land which is required for the greenhouse and water tank, a total of N1.2 million will be needed or N1.5m at most, depending on the location and cost of acquiring the land.
From the training done so far, how many hydroponics farmers are in Nigeria at the moment?
We have trained over 10,000 hydroponics farmers in Nigeria including 7,000 youths. At the moment, over a hundred commercial hydroponics farms have been established all over the country and they are all doing well. There are many hobbyists and some universities are taking it up too.
Seventy percent of the students we have trained so far are not agric students.
Plants are meant to grow on soil, this idea of soilless farming, does it have any after effect on the final produce?
People make some mistakes by thinking hydroponics is the same as GMO. Hydroponics has nothing to do with the seeds, rather, it only focuses on how the seed is grown; it gives an environment for any seed to thrive.
In hydroponics, the best nutrient is given to the plant. It makes the final produce to be better than soil grown crops and ultimately, there are less pesticides used, less weeds and it's safer for the environment.
Are there some specific crops that can be grown with hydroponics, or do crops such as yam, cocoa, mango and others fit in?
Any crop can grow with hydroponics. The only issue is, viability. For example, it will take three years to grow and harvest cocoa. Why will you wait for three years in your greenhouse? It will take cassava, a year and 6 months. Why wait for that long to reap your profit when tomatoes can be planted and harvested within 70 days, cucumber will take 30 days, and harvest over and over again.
Can anyone start soilless farming if interested or does it require a special training?
A training is required, irrespective of whether the person has been a farmer or not. There is need to get trained before embarking on hydroponics. Training in itself is a challenge because people need to understand the plant culture, nutrient mixing and application as well as many other things. There are some who went abroad to get trained, but the materials used for them were quite different from what can be easily gotten locally.
Whoever has gone through a soilless training ends up understanding soil better. A farmer needs to understand what happens with the soil to be able to manage what happens outside the soil.