WFP’s hydroponics project grows during Kenya’s coronavirus lockdown

H2Grow is flourishing more than ever in arid Turkana County

WFP’s H2Grow project is helping families in Turkana County grow their own fresh produce during Kenya’s lockdown. Photo: WFP/Prisca Owato

By Liam Brown

Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic is making it harder to get groceries and shop for fresh food. In Turkana County in northwestern Kenya, movement restrictions have disrupted supply chains. Produce costs more and is often no longer fresh by the time it reaches the market.

While the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing support to promote farming among local and refugee families in Turkana County, and ensure they have access to fresh produce during the nationwide lockdown, finding a sustainable source of water for agriculture in the arid area has been a challenge.

That’s where the WFP’s H2Grow hydroponics project comes in. Hydroponics is a method for growing plants using no soil and dramatically less water than traditional agriculture — up to 90 percent.

Participating households are harvesting an average of 8kg per month of green leafy vegetables such as cowpea, kale, spinach and pigweed. Photo: WFP/Prisca Owato

While hydroponics isn’t a new concept, H2Grow’s low-tech approach of training food-insecure families to use local materials to make their own hydroponics systems is — and it’s allowing people in deserts, refugee camps and urban slums to increase their access to fresh food without necessarily relying on humanitarian assistance.

WFP’s hydroponics pilot in Turkana County began in December 2018, reaching about 1,500 people with the skills and knowledge to produce their own crops with limited space and water. Now, participating households are harvesting an average of 8kg per month of green leafy vegetables such as cowpeas, kale, spinach and pigweed.

For the thousands of participants, the ability to grow their own fresh vegetables has been a game-changer, introducing much-needed variety to intake.

“My children look forward to the harvesting days as they are assured of a change in their diet,” says Riziki Sinzobwakira, a Congolese refugee who participated in the pilot. “They happily consume the green leafy vegetables which gives them a break from the pulses which they eat on the other days.”

Kakuma Camp staff observe social distancing behind a specially constructed grid in April. Photo: WFP/Robert Eipa

The first cases of COVID-19 in the Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County were detected in May 2020, introducing new challenges for H2Grow — but the project is still growing more than ever. Faced by COVID-19, H2Grow is empowering people under lockdown to become more resilient by growing their own fresh and nutritious produce at home.

Physical distancing means WFP had to get creative with how hydroponics training was conducted and how progress was monitored. To reduce any possible risk of infection, WFP’s Kenya Country Office created WhatsApp messaging groups with hydroponics users and WFP staff. Now, users can share updates on how their vegetables are growing and ask for advice from agronomical experts, allowing WFP staff to maintain communication and support.

H2Grow is accelerating the launch of a digital training programme to help vulnerable communities use hydroponics to grow their own food at home. Photo: WFP/Prisca Owato

“The WhatsApp groups are aimed at giving the hydroponics beneficiaries the opportunity to share their experiences, successes and any challenges that they are facing,” says Prisca Owato, a WFP Programme Associate who led the hydroponics pilot in Kakuma.

“We are able to ensure that agronomical support is provided with minimal physical contact”.

The training sessions also afforded WFP the opportunity to provide important information about COVID-19, such as prevention and management strategies. Empty jerry cans were also provided to facilitate handwashing.

The H2Grow project is also accelerating the launch of a digital training programme, integrated with the WhatsApp groups, that will help vulnerable communities learn how to use hydroponics to grow their own food at home.

In 2019, H2Grow directly impacted more than 7,600 people in seven countries. This year it has expanded to two more countries, aiming to directly impact more than 20,000 people. By 2021, H2Grow aims to reach two million people in 21 countries through partnerships, scaling strategies and its online platform.

“Innovation is crucial to disrupt hunger in East Africa and WFP is at the forefront of finding new and more effective ways to both save lives and change lives,” says WFP Regional Director Michael Dunford. “H2Grow is just one example of leveraging the benefits of an existing, low-tech system in new and exciting ways.”

And there’s more. “This year we are also piloting food ATMs to dispense grain automatically in refugee settlements in Uganda whenever families want their food,” he adds, “using our partnership with non-profit Trademark East Africa to keep both WFP and commercial food supply chains running smoothly despite COVID-19 restrictions.”

While the H2Grow hydroponics pilot in Turkana County came to an end last December, participants are still using their training and new skills to grow their own fresh vegetables with hydroponics.

Dorcas Babaju, a South Sudanese refugee living in Kakuma is one of many participants planning to continue growing her own food with hydroponics. “With the knowledge and skills I have gained so far, I am confident that I will be able to continue with the hydroponics activities when I eventually go back home to South Sudan,” says Dorcas.

The H2Grow project is now focused on disseminating learnings and pursuing funding to scale up the adoption of hydroponic farming in Kenya — not just in Turkana County, but into WFP’s country-wide programmes.

With the additional funding and support, people like Dorcas will be able to use hydroponics to keep growing their own fresh vegetables and improve their skills, nutrition and livelihoods far into the future.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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WFP Innovation Accelerator

WFP Innovation Accelerator

Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.