Inside the refugee camp using solar energy and ‘hydroponics’ to grow thousands of fruits and vegetables Francine Mashimango, 48, is standing inside a greenhouse at a hydroponic station in the Tongogara refugee camp (TRC) in southeastern Zimbabwe.

Wearing a white suit and black shirt to protect himself from the brutal June chill, Mashimango looks at a month-old lettuce grown in a deep-sea hydroponics system.

The single mother of eight fled the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018.

After crossing into Zambia and being arrested along with her children for breaking immigration laws in Binga ZimbabweTo the north, he found refuge at the TRC in the Chipinge district.

“The rebels took my husband in 2016, forcing him to join them. Up to now, I don’t even know whether he’s still alive or not,” Mashimango says in Swahili.

Shacks and makeshifts make up the majority of homes in TRC.

Mashimango – who was a small farmer in the DRC – tried to set up a garden at the back of her house in the field, but was unsuccessful as water it is almost a kilometer away, making his agricultural enterprise unsustainable.

In November 2021, she became one of the pioneers small farmers in a hydroponic station set up by World Vision Zimbabwe, a humanitarian organization funded by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).

What is Hydroponics?

Hydroponics, a soilless cultivation technique that allows plant growing in arid areas or urban areas, uses up to 90% less water and 75% less space than conventional agriculture.

Hydroponic techniques also encourage plants to grow up to twice as fastaccording to a WFP expert.

At the TRC there are around 70 farmers who grow various vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce in greenhouses in an area the size of a football field powered by solar power.

They use two types of hydroponic systems including deep water culture (DWC) and the drip system also known as the Dutch bucket system.

Hydroponic technology is taking off in various settings, including a disused WWII bunker in London. -MAJA SMIEJKOWSKA/REUTERS

“Deep Water Culture is one of the simplest and most efficient hydroponic techniques,” explains a World Food Program official. “The plant grows in a mesh pot filled with a small number of clay pebbles. The roots grow immersed in a water-based mineral solution that is constantly oxygenated by an air pump.”

The Dutch bucket system, the official adds, uses two or more grow containers connected to the same irrigation and drainage lines that provide oxygenation and nutrients.

The residual solution then flows back to the tank for reuse.

I use the time elsewhere.

Mashimango, who is part of the team that carries out the routine checks every morning, says the hydroponic technique is less work-intensive.

“I don’t have to carry buckets over my head to water the plant. We rarely do anything here. I use time elsewhere,” Mashimango says quipping in his native Swahili.

How productive is hydroponics?

The hydroponic project at the TRC has the capacity to produce approximately 11,800 heads of lettuce and 500 cucumber plants in one harvest cycle in the five greenhousesaccording to WFP.

Louis Muhigirwa, deputy representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Zimbabwesays hydroponics is an option for farmers with limited access to land and water and works well in poor locations soils.

“It is a potentially useful tool to overcome some of the challenges facing traditional agriculture fresh water shortagesclimate change and land degradation in urban areas, arid climates and low-lying islands,” he says.

What happens on cloudy days?

You will do Shawn Matiashe

Peter Banzvi Chakaamba, a small farmer inspecting lettuce in one of the greenhouses of the Tongogara refugee camp. – You’ll be Shawn Matiashe

Both TRC systems require energy to continue delivering oxygen and nutrients to plants. A constant power supply is also needed to power the automatic machines that control the temperature in the greenhouse.

Solar panels charge batteries that pump water from underground to tanks. The water is then pumped to the hydroponic system in the greenhouse.

“When it’s cloudy the system shuts down after the batteries run out,” says Peter Banzvi Chakaamba, 48, who arrived in the TRC four years ago after fleeing conflict in neighboring Mozambique.

The more solar panels the better storage it is necessary to ensure that they do not drain during cloudy days.

Muhigirwa adds that some types of hydroponic systems also require continuous, reliable feeding, as plant roots can dry out quickly if pumps or sprays fail.

From growing vegetables to surprising deals: where does hydroponic production go?

Small farmers supply their products to the best retail outlets in the town of Chipinge and to markets within the TRC.

A WFP official says farmers are being taught about market relations all the time.

Understanding how local economies and markets work allows them to identify the best ways to sell their products, she says.

Mashimango says she uses the proceeds from the project to care for her eight children.

“After we sell the products, we divide the money equally. I use the money to buy clothes for my family,” she says.

You will do Shawn Matiashe

Ilanga Kabongo, chair of the TRC’s hydroponic project, inspects cucumbers in a greenhouse. – You’ll be Shawn Matiashe

Ilanga Kabongo, chair of the hydroponic project at the TRC, says they also donate greens to senior citizens.

“We used to have so many vegetables that we had to donate to the underprivileged, including the elderly in the camp,” says the 44-year-old, who fled rebels trying to force him to join the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015.

He added that once a week, small farmers can bring some vegetables to their homes for family consumption.

Hydroponics Could Be a ‘Climate Change Bell’

Paul Zakariya, executive director of the Farmers Union of Zimbabwe, says it is important to explore possible adaptation options in response to climate change.

“The cost of setting up a profitable hydroponic business that supplies on a local rural scale needs to be explored. If this is to be measured against economic considerations, any investment in this regard will need to be supported technically and financially,” he says.

Zakariya says the government and private sector, including financial institutions, should support the adoption of hydroponic technology.

Lands Ministry Permanent Secretary John Bhasera says hydroponics is one of those technologies that should be adopted by the government on a massive scale.

We need such technologies to still promote high levels of productivity without necessarily needing a large piece of land.

“We need such technologies to still promote high levels of productivity without necessarily needing a large piece of land. This could be a goal against climate change urban rural areas and areas,” he says.

The government will target nutrition and household income, he says.

Meanwhile, Mashimango dreams of one day owning a farm to venture into farming full-time.

“I hope to own a piece of land and will use the skills and knowledge gained in this hydroponic project to grow vegetables on a large scale,” he says.

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