Hydroponic fodder production: An innovative solution in times of drought

Namibia has suffered heavily from drought in recent years, but hydroponics can help farmers reduce their reliance on water and continue to feed their livestock.

“Our animals were as thin as straws of grass, but now they are looking very fat and healthy,” says 36-year-old Agnes Tengovandu-Tjindo, who lives in Otjozondjou, a small village in Western Namibia. The drought has been so severe in Agnes’ area that she worried none of her animals would survive it.

“I lost a great number of my livestock and was left with only a few cattle and goats that I was also struggling to keep alive,” she said, while pointing to a few of her cattle resting under a camelthorn tree not far from her farm.

Over the last couple of years, Namibia has been recovering from one of its worst droughts in recent history. Farmers have been unable to grow crops to feed themselves and their valuable animals. Buying fodder was too expensive, so they needed to look for an alternative.

That’s when an FAO-supported project in Agnes’ community introduced hydroponics, an innovative way of farming using little water and no soil.

It is an easy process whereby barley seeds are first soaked in water until they sprout, and then placed in a simple greenhouse structure where they continue to be provided with nutrients and water to grow.

The barley is watered for seven days and the resulting green shoots and root mat are then harvested and fed to livestock.

This hydroponic method has many advantages: the fodder only takes a week to grow compared to several weeks with normal methods. It does not require any fuel, and it requires little water, making it ideal in times of drought.

When Agnes first heard about the project, she immediately recognised what it could do for her community and was keen to be involved.

Agnes’ local farmers’ association recommended her for the project, and she became one of over 3 000 farmers to receive training on the hydroponic fodder production process.

Agnes’ goats, now healthy and well-fed, enjoy nibbling on fodder made with hydroponic production techniques. Left/top: ©FAO/Phillipus Tobias Right/bottom: ©FAO/Phillipus Tobias

Safeguarding livelihoods with innovation

Funded by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund, the project, implemented by FAO and several Namibian organisations, has established 79 greenhouse hydroponic fodder production systems across seven regions in the country.

Specialists from FAO and a hydroponics expert from the Namibia National Farmers’ Union trained the staff of Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture.

They in turn imparted that knowledge to the farmers participating in the project, and farmers then passed on the knowledge to their community.

Agnes went on to become the lead farmer of the greenhouse project in her area. She was in charge of its productivity and training community members, especially women.

When done right, Agnes believes that the hydroponic process is fairly easy. “The fodder takes around six to seven days to grow, with one kilogram of fodder requiring about three to four litres of water,” she explained.

Around 50 farmers living near each greenhouse all work together as part of the project, under Agnes’ guidance. Everyone participates in the production of the fodder, from preparing barley seeds to watering and harvesting the plants, and they agree amongst themselves how to share the products. In this way, all farmers get a feel for the technology, gaining the knowledge and experience to continue it in the future. Agnes says proudly that her community has taken full ownership of the greenhouse, and that it has become an integral part of their survival.

“We have created a system that not only ensures that every household receives fodder from the greenhouse but also makes room for every farmer to get involved in the fodder production process,” says Agnes. “Even if the rain returns, we will still keep making use of it and safeguard it because with climate change being an undeniable reality, droughts can strike at any time.”

The hydroponic method allows Agnes (pictured) and her community to grow fodder with less water, making the production more resilient to drought and changes in climate. ©Agnes Tengovandu-Tjindo

 Women leaders

Hydroponic greenhouses have benefitted not just Agnes and her community, but many others in the country. Anna Isaacks is a pensioner from Amalia, a small farming outpost that is particularly prone to drought in southern Namibia. She also put herself forward to be the lead farmer for her local greenhouse, which was then built on her farm to benefit from the borehole on her property that leads to fresh water.

For Anna and the other local farmers, the addition of the greenhouse has been life changing. As Anna herself puts it, “There is now hope where there was none.”

“We are now able to feed our livestock and save them from dying,” she said.

The project, which began in 2020, has to date benefitted around 3 350 households, 40 percent of which are headed by women. This has had a big impact in a country where agriculture is predominantly led by men.

Boosting resilience

In addition to the hydroponic fodder production systems and training, the project has vaccinated livestock against various diseases and treated them for both internal and external parasites. Multivitamin metabolic injections were also administered to boost the livestock’s immune systems and overall health, thereby improving their resilience to the next grazing shortage.

Creating a resilient agricultural sector for rural communities is vital if we hope to end hunger and poverty by 2030, and innovative solutions are the key. Technologies like hydroponics are simple methods that can make a huge difference in boosting communities’ resilience and tackling the effects of climate change.

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