Growing money in the backyard
FEMI IBIROGBA, Head, Agro-Economy Desk, writes on how farmers make millions of naira through space, water-efficient and crop-protective technologies of greenhouses.
Inadequate farm irrigation facilities in Nigeria and dramatically changing climate as a result of ozone layers depletion have affected quality and quantity of food produced in the country.
The World Bank collection of developmental indicators indicates that the total agricultural irrigated land in Nigeria as of 2004 was 0.30474%, and, one of the latest reports by the International Food Policy Research Institute says as of as of 2018, “only one percent of Nigerian cropland is irrigated,” meaning most farmers can cultivate their fields only during the rainy season. This also leaves farmers and food-insecure populations very vulnerable.
The Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMeT), in February 2019, warned farmers to expect lower and erratic rainfalls which might affect planting seasons and food production.
The agency predicted that there would be late onset of and early cessation of rainfalls; and that the rainfall season would be occasioned by dry interregna that might span 10 to 21 days, describing it as “very unpleasant and portends danger for Nigeria’s effort to achieve food security in most of its staple crops.”
Food production is largely rain-dependent in the country, and rainfall patterns are constantly fluctuated through the climate change effects. The complicated man-made situation puts Nigeria and other less developed economies in danger of food insecurity.
However, entrepreneurs, scientists and farmers are thinking out of the box, using space, cost and water-efficient greenhouse technologies to make all-year farming possible even at the backyard.
During a visit by The Guardian to Shimawa Road, Shagamu, in Ogun State, where Integrity Farms operates four units of 8m x 48m greenhouses, it was revealed that agro-entrepreneurs have adopted technologies to resolve space challenges, rainfall unpredictability and crop protection difficulties.
The findings support the assertion of Professor Sanni Salami, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), that agribusinesses are now knowledge and technology-driven.
The farm produces bell peppers (sweet peppers) of green, yellow and red colours.
Young Tunde Azeez, an agronomist attached to the farm, explained to The Guardian that after three months of planting the seeds, sweet pepper would start production. The production period would last for another three to four months.
This implies that two cycles are obtainable in a greenhouse in one year for sweet peppers. For cucumber, four to five cycles are obtainable, Azeez explained.
Similarly, at Best Food Fresh Farms, Epe, in Lagos State, different exotic sweet peppers, tomato, cucumber and hot peppers are grown.
There are 20 greenhouses on the farm with an average production of 1.2 tonnes per annum in a smaller greenhouse, as revealed by David Ekunola, an agronomist managing the farm. Each greenhouse here is 8m x 24m in dimension, half of Integrity Farms’.
“With my experience as an agriculturist, greenhouse farming is one of the most lucrative agribusinesses when it is properly undertaken. For example, a kilogramme of sweet pepper is sold at between N1200 and N1500. Tomato is N600 to N900 and hot pepper is N500 to N700.
“You can imagine what one will get from sweet pepper production from just a unit of 8m x 24m kit,” he said.
He explained that with suitable factors such as the soil, climatic factor (excluding rain fall because a greenhouse depends wholly on irrigation), “one can get an average production of 2.5 metric tonnes or more per cycle in a kit.”
He advised that it is advisable to carry out an analysis of the different factors, consult experts and conduct a general survey on greenhouse farming within the selected locality of the proposed farm.
Again, at Elysian Farms, also in Lagos, bell peppers, habanera, tomatoes and cucumber are cultivated in five greenhouses.
As explained by Ayodele Fatunbi, an agronomist managing the farm, habanera (hot pepper) is planted and harvested in a cycle of six to eight months. Harvest starts after two months of planting and 15-30kg is harvested per week in a greenhouse of 8mx24m size.
Tomatoes, too, are planted and harvested in a cycle of six to eight months, and harvest is done once or twice weekly too, with each greenhouse producing between 80 and 100kg per week.
Bell peppers are harvested nearly three months after the seeds are planted, he affirmed. The harvest period lasts for another three active months before productivity drastically drops. So, active and profitable production per cycle last for six months, with harvest quantity per week ranging from 40 to 60kg.
Fatunbi said price per kilo of tomatoes ranges from N400 to N800; bell pepper, N1000 and for habanera, it is between N400 and N700 depending on the season.
The agronomist said with the calculation of the cost of inputs and revenue, he could categorically conclude that, “running a greenhouse is sustainably profitable.”
He said, “You source for your own market. It’s available,” while explaining to The Guardian how to sell the products to eateries, groceries and vendors, as well as individuals.
Economics of greenhouse farming
For sweet peppers, Azeez revealed, six metric tonnes were recorded as harvests per unit of the 8m x 48m greenhouse yearly, with approximately three tonnes per cycle.
The agronomist said the least price per Kg was N800, multiplied by 6,000kgs (six metric tonnes). A greenhouse of the dimension gives a minimum of N4.8 million per annum, going by the harvest obtained from Integrity Farms.
Azeez told The Guardian that a farmer using the greenhouse would recoup the capital on one greenhouse in one year of planting bell pepper, describing the pepper as daily household needs. “It sells faster than cucumber or sweet melon, and it is very lucrative, from our record,” he added.
Mr Oscar Walumbe, Integrated Project Country Manager at Dizengoff West Africa, explained to The Guardian that a unit of the greenhouse (8m X 48m) with seeds, chemicals, installation and other inputs for one cycle and insurance cover for one year would cost a farmer about N3.2 million.
The nets on the greenhouse can last five years if well maintained, but the metal structure is relatively permanent, he added.
To maximise the greenhouse, he recommended having a separate nursery greenhouse, where seedlings could be raised for one month, to spend about five months in the growing houses.
The farm employs three regular workers, working on four greenhouses, and each of them takes a salary of about N20,000 – N25,000 monthly. They pump water about three times a week, and irrigate the farm based on water requirement of the plant, which is determined by the moisture level of the soil.
The technologies of greenhouses
Greenhouses are used with drip irrigation and fertigation facilities, with reduced use of pesticides. Greenhouses are water-proof but solar penetrated structures that produce regulated conditions for vegetable cultivation.
Soluble fertiliser and other essential plant micronutrients are mixed with water at intervals for growth enhancement. Crop protection activities are minimal if access to the interior is restricted, as explained by Walumbe, making the system most suitable for organic agriculture.
Knapsack sprayers are used to spray insecticide either as preventive or treatment measures to protect the crop foliage and yield,
The holes for drip irrigation are perforated at the calibrated spacing and water drops into the base of each plant. This is the most efficient use of water for agricultural purposes if juxtaposed with flood, boom or sprinkler irrigation systems. It eliminates the challenge of drought associated with rain-fed agriculture.
Limited space is also maximised for huge renewable and sustainable farming. Most greenhouse farming activities are carried on at the backyards in the heart of cities, without any environment pollution, stress of farmers or an additional cost of going to a distant place for farming each day.
“The do-it-yourself labour requirement, as a result of absence of weed control, reduces the cost, makes farming a fun and prevents theft of harvest common in open field farming,” so explained Mr Humphrey Otalor, a Brands and Marketing Manager at Dizengoff West Africa.
“You can plant all kinds of vegetables but it is better to take advantage of what is not planted off rainy seasons. For example, if everybody is growing tomato, if I am a greenhouse farmer, I will grow pepper, because a few people are growing it,” Otalor said.
A greenhouse of 8m X 24m size is valued at about N1.7 million. It includes the greenhouse, the irrigation kits, and seeds, as well as bags of soluble fertiliser, pesticides, a sprayer and installation to enable a farmer to start cultivation immediately.
Hitches in greenhouse farming
Greenhouse farming uses almost precision technologies, requiring meticulous attention and catholic regiments of dos and don’ts. It is a knowledge-driven farming device requiring good agronomical practices. Calibrations must be accurate and interventions in cases of infestations must be timely. These demand the presence of an agronomist if a farmer is not literate or meticulous enough to follow instructions.
Borehole or deep wells, in places like Lagos, are sources of water, which require daily pumping, but electricity is a challenge in the country. This requires a power generating set, with attendant fueling and maintenance cost. This swells up the cost of production and reduces the profitability margins.
However, a solar energy specialist, Rotimi Pariola, told The Guardian that solar power pumping machines for wells and boreholes would eliminate cost of acquiring, fueling or maintaining a power generating set in such a venture.
Solar panels, Pariola said, could generate power for battery storage for over 40 years, making the cost very insignificant. Solar batteries, he argued, would work for three to five years if instructions are followed, and inverters last for five to 10 years.
He emphasised that renewable energy is the solution to water pumping for irrigation in a greenhouse.
Advantages of greenhouse farming
Economy of space and suitability for city farming
Walumbe, who is an integrated greenhouse and irrigation specialist, told The Guardian that one of the greatest advantages of using the integrated technology for farming is the most economical utilisation of space.
Friday Ali, another greenhouse specialist, said quantity of harvest in a greenhouse is 30 times above the harvest obtainable in the equivalent open space farming. Implication of this, in a simplified version, is that a greenhouse of one plot of land size will produce the quantity of harvest 30 plots of land will produce per cycle.
They explained further that the technology helps urban and city farmers to maximise agricultural productivity in the midst of scarcity of space. This goes with less labour, weeding and associated costs.
An agro-economist working with a research institute in Ibadan, Oyo State, who demanded anonymity, told The Guardian that “most of the agricultural products from rural areas are sold in cities because of population concentration and higher purchasing powers. Moving agro-allied products to cities has always increased cost of production, compounded by activities of middlemen. Urban or city agriculture through space-saving and water-efficient greenhouse technologies eliminates or drastically reduces transportation cost, making products relatively more affordable.”
Premium prices of exotic vegetables
Vegetables grown in greenhouses are exclusively exotic, attracting premium prices. In fact, products from greenhouses are purchased by people who appreciate the value of exotic, fresh and toxin-free vegetables and are ready to pay for the value.
Otalor said the variety of tomato grown in the greenhouse would last for no fewer than 21 days after harvest, reducing the post-harvest losses drastically.
Rainless year-round farming
The climate change greenhouse effect on rainfall patterns has made rain-fed agriculture a difficulty, especially in resource-poor countries where government-funded irrigation facilities are scarce. Erratic rainfalls expose crops to droughts and countries and their peoples to food insecurity.
However, backyard-like greenhouse technologies have proven very effective in doing agriculture without the uncertainty of rainfalls. This has worked for Israel and Egypt, two countries with poor soil fertility and very scanty rainfalls annually.
Israel does rainless year-round farming, and is one of the food-secure and food-exporting countries. With greenhouse farming and other technologies, Israel produces 300 metric tonnes of tomatoes per hectare, while Nigeria produces about seven tonnes per hectare, as estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
Ideal for organic farming
In the last one decade, the demand and yearning for organically produced foods have been on the increase. However, crop protection against pests and micro-organisms has made it practically difficult to go fully organic, considering the need to feed the growing world population. Soil fertility, too, is a limiting factor in the full-blown organic food production.
Wulumbe, however, said with greenhouse farming technologies, advocates and lovers of organic foods, especially vegetables, might have more of such.
He explained that the greenhouse enclosure prevents infestations of most biological pests, and with good management, micro-organisms are kept at bay in greenhouse farming. It is possible to farm in greenhouses without using crop protection chemicals, he said.
Tomato production made easier in the southern Nigeria
With greenhouse technologies, tomatoes can be grown commercially in the southern part of Nigeria. Residual micro-organisms and pests that tomatoes are susceptible to abound in the southern states in Nigeria, making tomato production expensive through application of preventive and corrective agro-chemicals.
The national demand for fresh tomatoes in Nigeria is about three million tonnes per annum. Due to the poor production chain, it is estimated that the country loses from 750,000 to 1.3 million tonnes of tomatoes, especially through rough packaging and ineffective transportation.
Though capital-intensive, greenhouse technologies are sustainable means of lucratively engaging retirees, restive and unemployed youths, and, as they work for Israel, they can help make the country food-secure if resources are invested in these. Women empowerment programmes should be used to incorporate these technologies as constituent projects rather than impact-less and highfalutin projects dissipating collective resources.
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