The Netherlands is building its first large-scale commercial vertical indoor farm. It’s expected to serve Europe’s largest supermarket chains with high quality, pesticide-free fresh cut lettuce.
Vertical farms use high tech lighting and climate controlled buildings to grow crops like leafy greens or herbs indoors while using less water and soil. Because it’s a closed growing system, with controlled evaporation from plants, this farms use 95% less water than traditional farms. At the same time, most vertical farms don’t need soil because they use aeroponics or hydroponic systems – these dispense nutrients needed for plants to grow via mist or water. This technique is ideal for meeting the challenges of urbanisation and the rising demand by consumers for high-quality, pesticide-free food.
They’re not unusual. In recent years, there’s been a gradual increase in the number of vertical farming enterprises, especially in North America and Asia. In the US, Chicago is home to several vertical farms, while New Jersey is home to AeroFarms, the world’s largest vertical farm. Other countries such as Japan, Singapore, Italy and Brazil have also seen more vertical farms. As the trend continues, vertical farming is expected to be valued at US$5.80 billion by 2022.
Africa faces similar trends that demand it considers vertical farms. Firstly, it’s urbanising at a fast rate. By 2025 more than 70% of its population is expected to live in the cities. Secondly, many of these urban consumers are demanding and willing to spend much more to buy high quality, pesticide free food.
Yet, despite sharing trends that have fuelled the vertical farming movement, Africa is yet to see a boom in the industry.
A few unique versions are sprouting up on the continent. These show that the African versions of vertical farms may not necessarily follow the same model of other countries. It’s important to establish what the barriers to entry are, and what African entrepreneurs need to do to ensure more vertical farms emerge.
Barriers to vertical farming
Initial financial investments are huge. For example, a complete modern (6,410sqm) vertical farm capable of growing roughly 1 million kilos of produce a year can cost up to $80 to $100 million.
There also needs to be upfront investment in research. Many of the successful vertical farms in the developed world, including the one launching in the Netherlands, invest in research before they go live. This ranges from studying the most appropriate system that should be used to the best lighting system and seed varieties, as well investigating the many other ingredients that determine the success or failure of the farm.
Access to reliable and consistent energy is another barrier. Many African cities frequently experience power cuts and this could prove to be a big challenge for innovators wanting to venture in vertical farming business.
Faced with these challenges, entrepreneurs thinking of venturing into vertical farming in Africa need to put in more thought, creativity and innovation in their design and building methods.
They need to be less expensive to install and maintain. They also have to take into consideration the available local materials. For example, instead of depending on LED lighting system, African versions can utilise solar energy and use locally available materials such as wood. This means that entrepreneurs should begin small and use low-tech innovations to see what works.
As innovators locally figure out what works best for them, there will be further variations in the vertical farms between African countries.
In Uganda, for instance, faced with lack of financial resources to build a modern vertical farm and limited access to land and water, urban farmers are venturing into vertically stacked wooden crates units. These simple units consist of a central vermicomposting chamber. Water bottles are used to irrigate the crops continuously. These stacked simple vertical gardens consume less water and allow urban farmers to grow vegetables such as kale to supply urban markets. At the moment, 15 such farms have been installed in Kampala and they hope to grow the number in the coming years.
In Kenya, sack gardens represent a local and practical form of a vertical farm. Sack gardens, made from sisal fibres are cheap to design and build. One sack costs about US$0.12. Most importantly, they use local materials and fewer resources yet give yields that help farmers achieve the same outcomes as vertical farms in the developed world. As a result, many have turned into sack gardening. In Kibera, for example, over 22,000 households have farmed on sacks.
Also in Kenya, Ukulima Tech builds modern vertical farms for clients in Nairobi. At the moment it’s created four prototypes of vertical farms; tower garden, hanging gardens, A-Frame gardens and multifarious gardens. Each of these prototypes uses a variation of the vertical garden theme, keeping water use to a minimum while growing vegetables in a closed and insect free environment.
The continent has unique opportunities for vertical farms. Future innovators and entrepreneurs should be thinking of how to specialise growing vegetables to meet a rise in demand of Africa’s super vegetables by urban consumers. Because of their popularity, startups are assured of ready markets from the urban dwellers. In Nairobi, for example, these vegetables are already becoming popular.
Feeding Africa’s rapidly growing urban population will continue to be a daunting challenge, but vertical farming – and its variations – is one of the most innovative approaches that can be tapped into as part of an effort to grow fresh, healthy, nutritious and pesticide-free food for consumers.
Now is the time for African entrepreneurs and innovators to invest in designing and building them.
China's Sinopec will pay almost $1 billion for a 75 percent stake in Chevron Corp's (CVX.N) South African assets and its subsidiary in Botswana to secure its first major refinery in Africa, the companies announced on Wednesday.
China Petroleum and Chemical Corp, or Sinopec, Asia's largest oil refiner, said the assets include a 100,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery in Cape Town, a lubricants plant in Durban as well as 820 petrol stations and other oil storage facilities.
Chevron Global Energy Inc said in a statement that Sinopec's bid was selected in part because of the better terms and conditions it offered, including a commitment to operate the businesses as going concerns and the opportunity to reap strategic value for its longer-term strategy in Africa.
The deal, which includes 220 convenience stores across South Africa and Botswana, is subject to regulatory approval.
With a growing middle class, demand in South Africa for refined petroleum has increased by nearly 5 percent annually over the past five years, to a current total of about 27 million tonnes, Sinopec said.
Sinopec in 2012 partnered South Africa's national oil company PetroSA to help develop a new greenfields refinery that has subsequently been shelved due to high costs. It said it would retain the whole workforce as well as the existing Caltex brand for the retail fuel stations for up to six years before launching a rebranding strategy.
The remaining 25 percent of the South African assets will continue to be held by a group of local shareholders, in accordance with South African regulations. Reuters reported on Friday that Sinopec was the last remaining bidder in the auction which lasted more than a year and drew interest from French oil firm Total (TOTF.PA) and commodity traders Glencore (GLEN.L) and Gunvor.
The President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and his Senegalese counterpart President Macky Sall, graced the Africa CEO Forum 2017 with their presence, to discuss how Africa's sub-regions can work more closely together in a world where demands for economic nationalism and protectionism are on the rise.
Switzerland's Minister of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, Johann Schneider-Ammann, gave the welcome address ahead of the panel discussion which marked the end of the 2-day event. Patrick Smith, Editor-in-chief of The Africa Report magazine moderated the special panel highlighting the shared democratic history of both West African countries in recent years.
Speaking on global events that have made headlines recently, President Akufo-Addo stated that too much of Africa's development has been centered on events outside the continent's borders and there was a need to focus more on "what is taking place on the continent and inside our countries". He further expressed his desire to position Ghana beyond aid and charity but rather "dependent on its own resources and thinking".
President Sall however stressed on the need for Africa to collaborate with international investors as its private sector alone "is not enough to meet the entire investment needs of the continent". Instead of putting the two against each other, he encouraged cooperation "between Africa's private sector and foreign private sector investment in Africa". He also praised the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for supporting Africa's development through key trade partnerships.
President Sall also took a strong stance against Africa's supposed role in Europe's ongoing migrant crisis. "Africa and Europe have a long history but [...] what I cannot accept is the characterisation of African migration". He made it clear that it was in the continent's best interest that migration decreased because Africa's "needs labour to succeed in its emergence".
Both leaders agreed that a free trade zone across Africa, discussed at the African Union in Addis Ababa, was important and long overdue. According to President Akufo-Addo, "intra-continental trade in Africa is the lowest on the globe" with figures from the World Trade Organisation posting trade among African countries at just 18%, compared to 52% and 69% for Asia and Europe, respectively.
With regard to women's empowerment in the public sphere, President Sall highlighted the important role women have to play in public policy which should not be limited to an elite group alone, "but also women in rural areas who continue to work in extremely difficult situations". He added this will "certainly contribute to give women a more prominent role in the continent's development".
President Akufo-Addo finished by thanking his Senegalese counterpart saying that "West Africa owes a debt of gratitude to the lucidity of Senegal's reaction to [Gambia's former] President Jammeh's decision to stay," because for the first time in Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)'s history, all 15 member countries of the regional bloc have democratically elected governments in place.