According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), between March and May of this year, at least 9.2 million Nigerians faced a crisis or worse levels of food insecurity due to armed conflicts, the effects of COVID-19, and climate change. This figure is expected to rise to more than 12.8 million between June and August 2021.
To ensure food security and non-seasonal food production, farmers like Samson Ogbole, Founder of SFarmLab, practice soilless farming (hydroponics), a revolutionary innovation in agriculture. Because fertile lands are rapidly disappearing due to climate change and other factors, it has become increasingly important to develop smarter and more sustainable crop-growing methods.
Although soilless farming is not a new phenomenon, it has only recently become popular in Nigeria. This type of farming employs the use of a system, which is linked to a nutrient tank. Nutrient solutions in the required quantities are supplied to the tank from which the plant extracts nutrients for growth.
Established in Abeokuta in 2019, Soilless Farmlab (a trademarked name for Eupepsia Place) provides a comprehensive approach to farming, including training, farm and business consulting, farm management, and product supply. In this interview with Ventures Africa, Samson Ogbole, the founder and team lead of Sfarmlab, discusses the vision for his novel business and what the government should do to revitalize agriculture.
What inspired you to start Sfarmlab?
Our vision is to produce food without relying on the seasons. We’ve realized that the seasonality of food production is one of the most fundamental problems with our agricultural system. We recognize that soilless farming allows us to produce food all year long without relying on the seasons, while also bringing the impact of climate change to our community. These were the two motivating factors, and we also needed to ensure that the process was safe for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment.
Some people find the concept of soilless farming perplexing; can you explain the concept of hydroponics?
It is first necessary to understand the role of soil in planting. Because if you understand the function of the soil in planting, you will be able to understand how plants can grow without soil. And to understand the function of soil, I’d use cooking as an analogy. We know that heat is required for cooking. Previously, we used firewoods, and then we progressed to having things like electric/gas cookers, and so on. Heat is the common denominator in all of these. The food is cooked once the heat is applied.
When it comes to soilless farming, the same principle applies. It was first necessary to comprehend what exactly the role of soil is. And you’ll realize that the role of soil is to provide anchorage for the plant’s root, as well as aeration and water retention. With these understood, it is easier to eliminate soil and provide these functions through other means, allowing your plant to grow. We are simply providing other materials to serve these functionalities. We then place our nutrients inside these materials to keep the plants safe.
I assume soilless farming is capital intensive; how did you get the money to start the business? Do you have investors?
Capital intensive depends on who you ask and what you mean by intensive, because today people can start a small farmyard with as little as N10,000. We began with our funds, and we have investors, and we have grown commercially as well.
Do you grow a specific type of crop? If so, what are they?
I concentrate more on vegetable crops, particularly leafy and fruit-based vegetables. However, one can grow other things like yams, cereals, and so on.
You are interested in non-seasonal food production. What is the maturity span of these crops, and how do they differ?
Because we supply everything the plant requires, its growth period is shorter than that of plants grown in soil. The difference is determined not only by our growing system but also by the seed we plant. Different seed companies have incorporated various qualities into their seeds (breeders), so they play a significant role in determining the maturity span. We are speeding up the process without interfering with the plants’ natural processes.
Is there a difference in the quality of harvested produce when compared to the traditional agricultural model? Is there a health cost?
I will say this is healthier, in my opinion, because they are not exposed to fungicides, insecticides, or herbicides. After all, there are no grasses to use it on. Traditional agricultural practices often have to use chemicals for weed and insect control. As a result, its produce is less nutritious than that of soilless farming.
Can you explain franchise farming and how it works?
Franchise farming allows landowners to cultivate their land. Some people own land but do not have the time to cultivate it. We help such people with their farming. We can also sell for you and split the profits with you.
Throughout the process, we do not collect any percentage until it is time for sales, and of course, you would know how much we would get and how the produce would be sold from the onset. Those interested in franchising can reach out to us through our website or any of our social media pages.
What are the challenges you face in this business?
There are difficulties, as in any other aspect of agriculture. There is the issue of skill set; not many people are knowledgeable, so you would have to train them. There is also the capital aspect to consider because when you go large-scale, you will require more money as well as input. Just the fundamentals, as with any other aspect of farming.
How much of an impact do you believe technology can have on agriculture?
Technology simplifies things. It is an enabler for agriculture in that it will increase efficiency, productivity, and, of course, profitability.
There have been various initiatives to help diversify Nigeria’s reliance on oil to a sector such as agriculture; what would you like the government to do to revitalize the agricultural sector?
All the government needs to do is help those in agriculture succeed, and others will follow. Nobody advertised for oil and gas, banking, or entertainment, but as soon as people realized those in the industry were making money, they began subscribing. People should also keep in mind that, as a country, we must ensure that our food production is not seasonal because hunger is not.
Interview by Adekunle Agbetiloye