In 2003, Peter Chege had an epiphany: he could easily do what his employer was doing and play his part in creating jobs in the economy.
After a year and a half working at a pharmaceutical company as a quality controller, he quit to start his own manufacturing plant. .
“I had thought of opening my own pharmaceutical company, but getting licences to make drugs is difficult and expensive. I settled on animal feeds and mineral supplements because I saw a gap I knew I could fill,” said Mr Chege.
Making good use of his background in analytical chemistry, he set up Animal Minerals and Allied, and set about making high-quality livestock feed and supplements to boost animal productivity and increase the cash going into farmers’ pockets.
In early 2012, however, he realised his business would have to change to survive.
“Around this time, the raw materials required to make feed became very expensive. To continue with the quality of feed we were manufacturing, our products would have become too pricey and farmers would not have been able to afford them.”
He dedicated the entire year to researching cost-effective ways to make nutritious, high-quality feed.
“Early on in my search, I came across the idea of hydroponics and on reading up on it, I realised it could revolutionise agriculture in Kenya,” Chege said.
“It uses a 10th of the water required in conventional agriculture as the water used is recycled, and utilises vertical farming, so it requires only a third of the land normally used.”
Hydroponics has been in existence for centuries. It enables the growing of crops using 90 per cent less water and 70 per cent less space than conventional farming, and without the use of soil. Plants are watered with a nutrient solution at predetermined intervals in a controlled environment, which is provided by a greenhouse.
Chege was understandably excited about hyroponics’ potential and was eager to bring the technology to Kenya.
“I started looking for partners and approached a number of research organisations to explain the technology to them and my vision for it. The reception I got was not what I was looking for; I felt they were dragging their feet on actualising the idea, so I decided to run with it myself.”
He approached a farmer friend and asked for a loan of two cows that he could use to test the effect and viability of fodder grown using hydroponics.
“I set up a small unit and planted fodder (barley), which is rich in nutrients and good at boosting energy,” he said.
“We quickly realised that the cows in the trial produced more milk and had more energy than the rest of my friend’s herd.”
Most of the fodder used to feed livestock is harvested when it is overgrown, which means its nutrients are in a complex form. Animals, therefore, use up a lot of energy digesting such fodder, and even then, can only utilise 30 per cent of the nutrients available.
But with hydroponically grown fodder, which is harvested seven days after it is planted, nutrient digestion increases to 80 per cent, said Chege.
“My farmer friend told his neighbours about the results of our trial, and several of them came to see the hydroponics unit. It took some time to convince them that fodder grown this way is not genetically modified, but they eventually came around and asked for units to be installed on their farms,” said Chege.
As news of what he was doing spread, a South African firm offered Chege a partnership that would help him make hydroponics units faster.
“Unfortunately, it did not work out as their units were coming to about Sh2 million for something that would cater for 17 cows.”
Chege knew this was out of the reach of small and medium-scale farmers. He realised the units were coming to such a high amount because they required gadgets to keep them temperature controlled in Kenya’s tropical climate to prevent the build up of fungi.
In true researcher form, Chege asked himself what would need to be done to allow fodder to grow in high temperatures without falling prey to fungi.
His solution Treat the seeds and observe good hygiene.
He can now comfortably build hydroponics units using locally available materials, with the nutrient solution being the only component that is imported.
The cost of a unit varies, depending on a farmer’s herd. For instance, a unit for two cows costs Sh12,000, while one for 10 cows costs Sh80,000.
Chege then charges Sh45 per kilogramme of barley seeds, and Sh48 per litre of solution.
A cow that produces more than 20 litres of milk requires at least two trays of fodder a day, which works out to 14 trays per seven-day crop cycle. One that produces less than this requires seven trays per week.
To fill a tray, a farmer requires 2.5kg of barley seeds, while one litre of solution, which is diluted with water, is enough to fill 10 trays.
So you are interested in the hydroponics unit, what next
“When a farmer contacts us, we ask them to come for a three-hour training at our farm in Zambezi, Kikuyu. This costs Sh1,000 for individual farmers, or Sh300 per person for groups. We show our trainees how hydroponics works, and they can decide whether they want units just for fodder or also for vegetables,” said Chege.
“We then do a quotation and send a technician to set up the unit. An agronomist will make regular visits to check on the crops’ progress.”
For fodder, Animal Minerals and Allied recommends that the barley be harvested in seven days for cattle, or four days for poultry. Cows should get the fodder and conventional feed in a 50:50 ratio, or in a 70:30 ratio for poultry.
Since Chege started this line of business in late 2012, he has sold more than 400 hydroponics units in Kenya, and trained over 2,800 people.
Early last year, he set up a subsidiary in Uganda after his firm was invited to the country to demonstrate hydroponics at a seminar organised by farmers he had trained in Zambezi. The subsidiary has so far sold 150 units.
The company plans to take this hydroponics technology to more East African countries, and within three years, see at least 40 per cent of livestock farmers instal a hydroponics unit on their farms.
Chege’s advice to fellow entrepreneurs “Focus on solving people’s problems first, and success will follow.”