Hydroponic Farming in Rwanda

A Spotlight on the Uruhimbi Kageyo Cooperative and the Youth Engagement in Agriculture Network

Innovating agricultural practice one seed at a time.

As most of the domestic cropland in Rwanda is rural – and on slopes – soil loss, erosion, and decreasing fertility defeat the best efforts of local farmers trying to make a living. And less than half (49%) of that land is arable. In addition to being affected by rainfall and climate shocks, the sector is plagued by a lack of access to adequate water and sometimes energy supply, poor production techniques, and inefficient farming practices.

The government’s long-term goal is to move Rwandan agriculture from a subsistence sector to a more knowledge-intensive, market-oriented one, able to sustain growth and add value to products. But Etienne Niyigaba and Sylvestre Jackson Karara (known as Jackson) – looking for quick wins to motivate the farming community desperately needing a lifeline – have already sowed the seeds to help them produce fodder and vegetables more profitably. The solution? Hydroponic farming.

Etienne is a Rwandan agronomist who hails from a family of farmers. In 2014, after graduating with a degree in soil science and a master’s degree in crop production and farming systems, he founded the Youth Engagement in Agriculture Network (YEAN) to design and implement innovative youth-led agriculture programs. Appointed CEO at YEAN in December 2021, Etienne’s role is overall enterprise leadership, strategic planning, project implementation, partnership strengthening, and formalizing collaborations.

“In 2014, I thought of using the power and energy of young people to drive the transformation journey of agriculture in our country and possibly the entire continent of Africa. That’s how I started YEAN, with the help of two colleagues and additional volunteers sharing information to farmers and agriculture value players on how to produce and do business in agriculture,” he says.

Alongside that, the plan was to generate money to float his own business and generate income for himself, his colleagues, and other young professionals in agriculture. The business has continued to grow by attracting partners keen to adopt technologies that can help farmers and entrepreneurs. They include the Ministry of Agriculture, international organizations such as the Mastercard Foundation and AGRA, a farmer-centred, African-led, partnerships-driven institution, the East Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF), and some local organizations.

“YEAN is here to bridge that gap, bring in innovation and facilitate the adoption of technology to help farmers or entrepreneurs get a good yield from whatever it is they are doing. We provide services related to training anyone engaged in crop production, livestock production capacity building, project implementation, and research,” says Etienne.

Meanwhile, Jackson is a Rwandan pharmacist and an agripreneur. His passion for agriculture developed into a small project during his fourth year at university to help farmers better care for themselves, their families, and their animals. “I would see farmers running up and down early in the morning with sacks on their backs, harvesting grasses from the roadsides and riverbanks to feed the animals. I could hear the relentless livestock mowing at night because of hunger and malnutrition,” says Jackson.

He became interested in hydroponic fodder systems solutions, learning more about them on YouTube before engaging colleagues. This was one way to support farmers challenged by a lack of arable land and resources to feed their livestock. Increasing available fodder would have a direct impact on milk production. The technology has facilitated affordable daily or weekly supplies for farmers at a very cost-effective price – two-and-a-half times less than other feeds on the market.

Jackson registered his business as Uruhimbi Kageyo Cooperative (UKC) Incorporated, comprising 11 members. “We believe our solution will enhance milk production, and Rwanda will have plenty of milk. In my final year, in  2018, we secured a small piece of land and engaged with external experts in Kenya to find out how we could transfer this technology to Rwanda,” he says.

When the Foundation heard about the project, they contacted and motivated Jackson to consider how his project could be adopted and scaled and supported his business to kickstart production just before the pandemic started. “It grew and grew to the point of providing decent jobs. The youth are embarrassed when discussing cultivating soil, but they love technology and smart practices. Because this is soilless and vertical, they were attracted to it. Dirty-free, as they call it, It is so appealing to the youth. So, we were able to start with 400kg per week, moving up to 19,000kg when our project was coming to a head after one-and-a-half years,” he says.

The business has since scaled its value proposition from fodder sales to consultancy, technology transfer, training, research and animal keeping as other revenue streams.

Both Etienne and Jackson believe that hydroponic farming is the future of agriculture in Africa. “We are becoming climate resilient, the technologies are taking shape, and we are no longer exposed to conventional feed production. The youth love smart practices,” says Jackson. “This is scalable and proven to get results quickly. You can produce forage in a week on 10 by 20 meters of land that you might have needed three to six months to generate from five acres. It becomes an opportunity to do small set-ups in different countries and areas with low rainfall or limited water supply. The water is recyclable, making it efficient even in dry conditions.”

Regarding fresh produce, Etienne notes the benefits of the controlled environment in hydroponic farming that supersedes challenges imposed by climate and weather. Africa is facing a massive challenge in the climate crisis, from very harsh droughts to flooding. He explains that it is up to us to see how we can cope with that, adapt, and live within those situations.

Hydroponic technology is one of the solutions to adapting to and mitigating the impact of climate change on crop and feed production. Production can continue in a controlled environment, like an enclosed greenhouse, regardless of the weather or the season. “And you only work on the scientific part of the crop production, supplying nutrients and water according to its growth or production level. For example, you can harvest lettuce in 35 days, bell peppers all year long, and tomatoes in up to eight months. The Rwanda Agriculture Board uses the same technology for potato seed production. We’re using it to produce vegetables that we sell on the market. We have very clean planting materials, very clean vegetables, and very healthy products, and it’s nice to farm in a very clean and controlled environment,” says Etienne.

Covid-19 had an impact too. During the pandemic, every country relied on whatever food and feed resources they had locally. This reiterated the benefits of hydroponic farming for Etienne and his team and encouraged them to facilitate its adoption by anyone interested in this technology. “Most of the time, when new technology is introduced, it is too expensive for the people who need it. If the technology is localized in terms of available material, contextualized, and presented to the community in understandable terms, it can be adopted. If it’s not, it won’t be,” says Etienne.

Jackson agrees. Covid-19 enforced the need to domesticate the technology, especially for smallholder farmers. “We had access to local timber to construct the greenhouse and plastic containers to use as incubators. We were motivated by one mother, with whom we built a small setup to feed six cows. She’s able to produce the feed, get more milk, and even the biogas for cooking,” he says.

His team has extended the benefits to youth who farm with poultry, showing that the technology is easily transferable from one local to another, in any context, based on the capacity of the farmer or the end users. Moreover, young people like the tech-friendly aspect of it. “It’s enjoyable and cool. We love it, and we also love to expand it to so many places,” says Etienne.

Learn more about our work in Rwanda.

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