Namibia: Hydroponic gardening helps schools and communities

| July 8, 2019

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It’s break time and 12-year-old Sylvia Amaambo walks towards the school garden. She squats near a bed of water in the greenhouse shed and picks a bunch of vegetables through a small hole in the floating foam. With her right hand, she checks nutrients and ensures that the roots and leaves are growing well.

Sylvia is in grade six at Otjomuise primary school in Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. At this school, the students have a garden where they practice hydroponics, a type of farming where crops grow in nutrient-rich water instead of soil.

Today, Sylvia is checking the alkalinity or acidity of the water with a pH meter. Vegetables only grow well if the pH level is suitable. She explains, “I need to make sure that the water is at the right level [of acidity or alkalinity] throughout the process to secure a harvest for the school feeding program.”

Sylvia and her fellow students are growing beetroots, lettuce, spinach, and cabbage. For these vegetables to grow well in hydroponics, it’s important to add fertilizer to make the water nutrient-rich.

Sylvia says the water in the hydroponic garden beds comes from taps and its pH level is usually between 7 and 8. Most vegetables grow best with a pH level between 5 and 6. To reduce the pH level, the students adds phosphoric acid or vinegar, which the teachers purchase locally from retail shops.

John Sserwanga is a hydroponics expert in Windhoek. He says, “When the pH level is too high, it’s as bad as when it is too low because the plants will not be able to get fertilizer and nutrients from the water.”

Mr. Sserwanga learned hydroponics when he was in college in Uganda. He helped establish a hydroponics garden at Otjomuise primary school in October 2018, with support from the World Food Programme, in order to strengthen the school feeding program and increase students’ nutritional status.

This year, Mr. Sserwanga trained 20 students on hydroponic gardening—and Sylvia is one of them.

Julia Haipinge is one of the teachers in the hydroponics garden at the school and has also started using the technique at her home. She explains, “I have [a] hydroponics garden and with my first harvest, I was able to save about 500 Namibian dollars ($35US) for buying vegetables.”

Jessica Julius is in grade six at the school and has told her parents about hydroponics. She says, “I learned a lot from school, and started a garden at home with the help of my father whom I helped on the technical aspects.”

Mr. Sserwanga says hydroponic farming is best suited for areas like cities and towns where farmers may face a shortage of land. He explains, “One does not need soil. It takes up little space but [provides] more crops. As you can see, we managed to plant 144 plants on a space of 1.5 metres by 5 metres.”

He says that growing crops in water ensures that the crops use nutrients more fully than plants in soil. Mr. Sserwanga explains, “Because nutrients are fused directly into the water, plants feed on the nutrients directly. Whereas if it were in the soil, some nutrients would be lost.”

Mr. Sserwanga says that both the school project and other people who practice hydroponics buy local organic fertilizer and add it to the water as nutrients for the plants.

A 25-kilogram bag of organic fertilizer costs 670 Namibian dollars ($48 US). It is enough to supply nutrients for a 135-square-metre garden for one year.

At Sylvia’s school, about 60% of the harvest from the hydroponics garden goes towards the school feeding program, while the school sells the other 40% to buy fertilizer. More than 700 students have benefitted from the school feeding program.

Absalom Absalom is a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, Arts, and Culture. He says that the harvest from the garden supplements the daily fortified maize porridge which is served to more than 370,000 students across the country.

Mr. Absalom adds: “Many children go to school hungry and depend on the school feeding program’s daily porridge. The garden harvest provides more protein, calcium, and vitamin C, which is good for the development and growth of children.”

Playing with her friends used to be Sylvia’s passion, but now her passion has shifted to hydroponic gardening. She says, “I want to help feed my family and fellow learners. In future, I wish to commercialize my venture by selling yields I will harvest from my garden at home.”