By Onome Amuge
Global population, currently estimated at 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 8.6 billion by 2030 and surpass the 9 billion mark by 2050, according to reports by the United Nations world population projections.
As a consequence of a rapidly growing population, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) projects that food consumption and demand will rise sharply above 50 percent of its current rate, bringing to fore the realisation that the agriculture sector will need to increase its output significantly to avert what could result in a global food crisis, especially in urban areas where people are surrounded with limited space and resources, at a time the world is battling challenges of soil degradation exacerbated by climate change.
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), in a 2018 Global Land Outlook report, noted that a third of the earth’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tonnes a year to the combined effects of pollution, deforestation, soil erosion over cultivation and heavy application of fertilisers, climate change and adverse weather conditions gradually outpacing the earth’s natural ability to produce efficiently.
To address this challenge, agronomists have advocated the implementation of alternative farming technologies to enhance agri-food output in quantities and qualities expected to outpace traditional farming systems, especially in many urban areas considered difficult or near impossible to cultivate crops.
One of the innovative farming systems recommended for adoption is Vertical Farming. This food cultivation technique enables farmers to produce crops on vertically inclined surfaces or stacked layers commonly integrated into other structures such as a multi-storey building, shipping container or repurposed warehouse.
Considered the future of agriculture in urban environments, this method of farming uses Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology and other modern indoor farming techniques, such as rotating beds, to enable artificial control of temperature, light, humidity, and gases, thereby maximizing crop output in a limited space.
This modern farming system also involves the application of aeroponic, aquaponic or hydroponic growing mediums, i.e., growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solution in a water solvent which helps save space, prevent soil degradation, eliminate risks of diseases caused by soil organisms, and speed up crop cycles. In addition, vertical farming has been discovered to use 95 percent water compared to traditional farming, and specially suited to give farmers proper control over the nutrients.
As a result of the level of productivity recorded by this farming solution, analysts are optimistic the market is on the right track towards achieving a significant pace and adoption in the near future. Advancements in climate control, nutrient film technique, and sensing technologies among others are also expected to bode well for the market growth in the near future.
Grand View Research, an India and US-based market research and consulting company, in its assessment of the global market value of vertical farming, noted that the global vertical farming market size was valued at $4.34 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.5 percent from 2022 to 2030, supported by the increase in demand for urban agriculture and growing adoption of environment-friendly fruits and vegetables.
Considering the economic and environmental potentials of vertical farming, agriculture analysts opine that Nigeria can through its application improve its agricultural production, create employment opportunities in urban societies via the value chain, and consequently foster economic growth.
Angel Adelaja, chief executive officer and founder, Fresh Direct Produce and Agro-Allied Services, an ag-tech company that produces premium organic produce using vertical farming technology, explained that the eco-friendly agricultural practice guarantees 15 times higher yield.
According to her, a 20-foot container can grow the same amount as one-and-a-half football pitches with a nurturing period of four weeks or less.
The Abuja-based entrepreneur, whose vertical farming practice is done using shipping containers, said the process has enabled her to grow a variety of products that do not normally produce well in the Nigerian traditional farming environment. She added that the farming method guarantees that crops can be grown all year round irrespective of the season and also enhances soil fertility and resource conservation.
Samson Ogbole, team lead at Soilless Farm Lab, an innovative agri and foodtech startup which also employs vertical farming in the production of some of its crops, expressed optimism that vertical farming, aside from its remarkable potential, is one of the farming methods Nigeria needs to begin implementing to attain food security in the near future.
Challenges and recommendations for improved vertical farming system
Despite the numerous advantages the vertical farming system presents, the practice is faced with some limitations which make it quite difficult to be practised by Nigerian agriculturists.
The reluctance of some Nigerian farmers to invest in vertical farming has been largely attributed to the technical expertise involved and poor awareness. Being an electricity-dependent method of food production, many agriculturists in urban areas consider the construction and technology costs expensive and more difficult to manage compared to traditional farming.
Adelaja, speaking on some of the challenges faced in establishing her vertical farming enterprise, said access to technology and investing in infrastructure were expensive. She also identified land clearing, borehole construction, electricity, staffing, and finding a market among the difficulties she encountered in operating the business.
To strengthen the penetration of the farming practice in Nigeria, Adelaja enjoined agricultural professionals to collaborate with government officials to create and develop awareness programmes for local farmers. She also encouraged government officials and private organisations to also financially support the transition toward vertical farming.
Debo Onafowora, founder and CEO, BIC Farm Concepts, Abeokuta, Ogun State, confirmed that the production of vegetables using the vertical farming method has been very productive with positive returns on his farm. He, however, noted that the government is yet to make significant steps towards putting in place structures, framework and policies to support the success and development of the farming system, especially in cities such as Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, and Ibadan, where the urban population is high.
Onafowora also noted that the farming procedure is technical-intensive and not something anyone can venture into without undergoing training from time to time on handling technologically advanced equipment, compared to traditional methods of farming that require little or no training.
He called on the government to encourage the adoption of the innovative farming system by facilitating financial assistance and grants to youths and entrepreneurs willing to invest in vertical farming as an agri-business.
The agriculturist further stated that the farming system should be seen by the government as a way of creating employment and youth resourcefulness through the exploration of its value chain.
He also suggested the creation of public-private partnerships to encourage larger investments capable of generating revenue for both the government and private organisations.
On his part, Ogbole stressed that the innovative farming system is yet to receive high patronage compared to other countries due to low awareness and the scepticism of many Nigerian farmers in adopting the new innovation. He also noted that Nigeria’s erratic power supply is a deterrent to the success of the farming system as some of the equipment, in large scale productions, demand stable electricity supply to function.
He said Nigeria needs to take vertical farming more seriously because it is fast becoming a paradigm shift in agriculture, especially in the production of vegetables. He called on the government and private organisations to facilitate awareness programmes for urban farmers and assist in training them in the farming practice as well as encourage sponsorship/funding of research projects and public enlightenment programmes.