Photograph — WFP

Many have shared their life-changing stories, but only a few have risen from victim to victor. A unique example of such an individual is Taleb Brahim, a World Food Program partner and founder of a low-cost hydroponic solution, for subsistence farmers.

Taleb, who was born a Swagilain, moved with his family to Algeria as refugees in the Sahrawi refugee camps. Taleb recalls life in the camps as highly dependent on food items from government and voluntary organizations. This will be the motivation for Taleb’s dream of creating a sustainable level of food supply for refugees.

Taleb studied Agriculture at the Tishreen University in Lathiqiyahin, Western Syria and returned to Algeria in 1995, with a priority of using his knowledge to enhance small-scale agriculture like home gardens and household livestock. The realization didn’t come easy as financial components like the cost of farmland, fertilizers, water supply and machinery came into play.  

Fortunately, Taleb came across a video of high-tech hydroponics for the production of green fodder, which permits the growth of greens in only a few days, using 90 percent less water and no fertilizer In 2017. Taleb later partnered with the World Food Programme in Algeria to create cheaper low-tech hydroponics, fabricated from local materials, that is easy to repair and maintain.

There are now 250 units of various sizes, through which 1,200 refugees have been trained to grow barley in just seven days to feed their livestock, with no additional materials like fertilizer or pesticides. Over the past three years, Taleb has been committed to evangelising hydroponics to encourage alternative farming to low-income formers and vulnerable people, in an exclusive interview with Ventures Africa, Taleb shares some insights on the potential of alternative farming in Africa.

Ventures Africa: From experience What are the challenges refugees encounter in terms of food and education?

Taleb Brahim: The Sahrawi refugees are almost totally dependent on food aid from the international community and despite 33 years of that aid, the refugees have encountered many serious health and nutritional challenges such as malnutrition, chronic anaemia, goitre and stunting growth in children, as the basic food basket that’s distributed to the refugees was calculated according to the minimum number of calories that are needed by the human body, and it’s mainly consisted of dry foods as pulses, rice and wheat flour, sugar and oil.

Regarding education, the Sahrawi, like any other refugee in the world, has an old education system that meets the needs of the community that lives in those refugee camps.       

VA: Over the years, you have been committed to helping refugees increase their food supply. Why are you committed to the cause (food supply in refugee camps)?

TB: I´m a Sahrawi agricultural engineer and the refugees are my people, therefore it is my duty to help them to be independent in their food supplies, as there is an utmost need here in the camps, for me and people like me to ease the suffering of the refugees.       

VA: From your experience gained over the years, what are the challenges which you have observed that affect the food supply for refugee camps?

TB: The refugee camps are situated in a barren desert where no plants are growing naturally due to the harsh climatic conditions, aridity, shortage of water and low fertility of the soil, all those conditions, in addition to the reality that we are originally nomads and have no agricultural traditions, make it difficult for us to have any kind of agricultural production in the refugee camps.

VA: With the increasing rate of climate change in Africa (drought, low rainfall, e.t.c) what alternatives can farmers consider to maintain and increase food supply?

TB: We should reduce the total dependency on chemical products by adopting safe organic methods of pest control and fertilization, encourage and adopt local innovations and ideas and share knowledge and experiences between African farmers and engineers on the good and economic use of irrigation and how to conserve and restore the soil fertility.    

VA: What is the potential of hydroponics and aeroponics for African supply?

TB: Hydroponics is the technique that solves many problems of traditional agriculture such as the shortage of water, salinity and soil infertility, but, its main disadvantage is that it is relatively expensive in terms of purchasing the equipment’s and the maintenance, and that’s why I developed low tech hydroponics units that are made with locally available materials, which are cheap, easy to run and easy to be maintained and in which you can grow your green fodders without the use of any chemicals. This kind of local low tech hydroponic unit saves up to 90 % water in comparison to traditional agriculture. 

VA: What are the challenges hindering the use of hydroponics around the world?

TB: It´s a sophisticated technique that needs special training on how to use it.

  • The initial costs and the costs of maintenance are relatively high.
  • It needs electrical power.
  • It needs a lot of soluble fertilizers especially when we grow vegetables. 

VA: What countries/regions in Africa are you going to be promoting your hydroponics?

TB: So far, my low tech hydroponics units for the production of green animal fodders have been replicated in six African countries, Algeria, Sudan, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Chad. I wish to reach more communities affected by climate change, especially in the Sahel region.

What stakeholders in society, will you like to come on board to support the use of hydroponics?

  • Local authorities 
  • Local chiefs
  • Farmers and peasants.

VA: As the pioneer of leading innovation, how do you plan to carry on the legacy?

TB: Now, I’m working with WFP and hope to be able to work with the African institutions in the nearest future to reach more African communities that are not able to produce their own food supplies.

Now, I’m conducting an experiment on a type of home garden that produces all the needs of the family from fresh food such as meat, milk, eggs, fish, green fodder, vegetables and fruits in one garden and which saves up to 90% of irrigation water. This kind of garden uses only organic fertilizers that are produced by recycling the organic wastes of the family and of the garden. The seeds are produced in the garden and the needed organic pesticides are homemade.  

VA: Some countries in the African continent are dealing with significant food shortages, what do you believe is the solution?

TB: We should develop traditional African small scale agriculture like home gardens by adopting the methods of organic agriculture. Permaculture and low tech hydroponics. It was a good one as they enabled me to reach communities that are in need, in their food supplies, all over the world and shared my experience with them. With WFP we helped many communities to develop local solutions by adopting low tech hydroponics. 

VA: Where do you see African agriculture in the next 10 years?

TB: While Africa is the richest continent with its vast arable lands, ideal climates and enough water resources, some parts of the continent are severely affected by climate change where desertification and aridity are threatening the existence of many communities. If the African countries, institutions and experts work together by developing cooperation and collaboration among them then we can produce and supply our communities with the needed food supplies and reduce dependency on food aid from the international community, else things will be even worse than now.     

VA: With your past encounters with other innovators, what common goals do you all share?

TB: The common goals are:

  • Zero world hunger by 2030.
  • Access to cheap and clean energy
  • Developing Cheap and easy to use and maintain techniques of agricultural production.
  • Share experiences and knowledge about local innovations and ideas.
  • Developing systems that are totally dependent on locally available materials with almost zero input from outside. 

VA: What measures can African governments adopt to increase the food supply for all stakeholders of their society?

  • Encourage scientific research.
  • Support farmers and peasants.
  • Put fair laws for land and water tenures.

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