What you need to know before you invest in greenhouse

Wednesday March 13 2013

By Andrew Ndawula Kalema

There is this time-tested advice that you should only lend what you can afford to lose. The same advice applies if you are considering investing in a greenhouse.

True, there is money in greenhouse farming. But it is not easy money, as the aggressive promoters of greenhouse technology would want farmers to believe.

To get the picture, look at abandoned greenhouse structures scattered around Kampala and neighbouring districts like Wakiso and Mukono. The owners are frustrated farmers who invested millions expecting quick returns, only to lose it all.

False promises
Lured by the high returns projected by fast-talking promoters masquerading as greenhouse technology experts, many aspiring farmers, especially the young corporate class, took bank loans, drew their savings, or liquidated fixed assets to invest in a greenhouse.

You cannot blame them for being gullible. The returns on investment projected by the greenhouse promoters are simply irresistible. One lady was assured of 400 per cent in profits within half a year. She invested Shs10m expecting Shs40m in six months. But instead she lost an entire crop of tomatoes to a wilt disease at the flowering stage.

The people who supplied the greenhouse structure and equipment, kept suggesting different chemical combinations, which the desperate farmer had to buy from them. She faithfully applied the chemicals but the tomatoes continued wilting as if they had been planted in a sauna.


Get knowledge
Finally, the truth hit her in the face like a basket of rotten tomatoes. The so-called greenhouse experts were actually gamblers, who were just using her as a guinea pig.

In greenhouse farming, like any other farming enterprise, knowledge is power. But most farmers only want to know how much it will cost and how soon they will recover their money.

The right people to ask would be fellow farmers, who are already into greenhouse production. There are a few successful greenhouse farmers in Uganda. Visit them. There are many in Kenya, who can be visited through organised tours.

For those with internet access, there is a lot of information available. You can have virtual tours of greenhouse projects in Asia and other parts of the world, which have similar climatic conditions as Uganda.

From them, you learn about the opportunities and challenges in greenhouse farming. Some offer short courses in greenhouse management and other vital practical skills.

Besides inadequate knowledge, lack of commitment is another reason why many greenhouses in Uganda fail. Many Ugandans engaged in greenhouse farming have full-time jobs elsewhere. The day-to-day management is left to workers, whose competence and commitment are questionable.

Conditions in a greenhouse are constantly changing so the need for close monitoring. Plant growth is determined by the controlled conditions inside the greenhouse. Temperatures and humidity have to be kept constant around the clock. A greenhouse can easily overheat in the hot sun, leading to total disaster.

In technically more advanced countries like Israel, conditions are regulated with the help of computers. However in Uganda and most African countries, this still has to be done manually. In such a situation, monitoring the greenhouse on phone or visiting for a few hours over weekend cannot work.

Collective action
One effective way farmers can get into the greenhouse farming business is through organising themselves into groups or cooperatives and pool resources to start joint greenhouse projects. It will be easier to hire professional managers, get training from experts, organise study tours, seek financial support from government and private financial institutions, and look for markets.

As they gain more experience, they can set up greenhouses on their farms, but still continue to source inputs and search for markets collectively. Greenhouse farming is a way farmers can cope with the challenges brought about by climatic change, and also ensure food security for the country and region.

The author is a farming journalist and a consultant .