How Damba, a retired chef switched to urban farming
What you need to know:
The planting should follow proper agronomic practices such as spacing, line planting, seed rate, initial fertiliser application, as will be advised by the field extension officers. There are 11 agro-ecological zones in the country which determine what can planted.
Spinach, sukuma wiki, onions, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, parsley, capsicum, herbs, chillies, mint, strawberries and indigenous vegetables are some of the crops that can be grown in the vertical garden, with a standard one having a capacity of up to 44 crops
The moment you reach Muhammad Damba’s home in Nansana-Ganda, you needn’t ask what his passion is. Just outside his home is an ever-busy motor garage.
Near the gate, his wife operates a retail shop. And inside the home is an assortment of crops in a lush vegetable garden—mostly vegetables and spices.
All these are symbols of Damba’s passions: he is a mechanical engineer, who worked for nearly seven years as a chef in London.
Between 1999 and 2005, he worked with the company that fed the National Health Service, in the UK, rising from chef to chief taster, whose job was to taste the food, tell the ingredients, endorse it or advise accordingly.
Damba rose to fame last year when he and his family volunteered to cook meals which would be dispatched to several Kampala hospitals for free.
But he could not continue with the “free feeding in hospitals,” charity in the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which was more ruthless in terms of infections and deaths.
He thought of another way to help urban dwellers cope with the financial strain during the second lockdown.
“I found out that urban dwellers spend a lot to sustain life,” says Damba. He was already growing vegetables and spices at his home. He chose to grow more and give seedlings to those he has trained in the new project “Make Food a Friend.”
His ambition is to have at least 100 homes in Nansana Municipality producing their own vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and cabbage, first for their own consumption, then sell to the local markets.
“You cannot produce everything you need but again you can’t buy everything. So produce some food, sell some to buy what you can’t produce,” he explains.
“Our primary goal is encouraging home to produce vegetables to boost their nutritional balance, which would otherwise cost them a lot of money,” says Damba.
In the long run, he predicts, it would reduce the food shortage across the nation, and allow large-scale farmers across the country to produce for export, hence more foreign income.
In a four-day Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in March, delegates warned that climate change, conflicts and Covid-19 will affect Africa’s food security, increase malnutrition and limit development in the long run.
The representatives of leading international multilateral organisations, including International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the African Union predicted “chronic hunger in the next 10 years if timely action is not taken.”
Gerald Masila, Eastern Africa Grain Council executive director, emphasised the need to increase local food production to ensure food sufficiency in the region.
Damba substantiates that without food security, people cannot adhere to preventive measures such as avoiding crowded environments via observing social distancing, quarantine, among others, hence the persistence of disease in Africa.
“People can’t obey government’s preventive orders if hunger is their immediate threat. How can they maintain a balanced diet if they can’t afford good food?”
That is what Damba’s project seeks to address by training urban people, giving them free seedlings and encouraging them into vertical farming, a space-friendly, and cost-effective farming model.
Damba grows oregano, mint, thyme, coriander and mint, among other herbs. He grows tomatoes, cabbage, okra, kale, lettuce and eggplants, among other vegetables.
He buys each seedling at Shs200 from roadside sellers on Hoima road.
In a space less than 5x5 feet, one can choose to start with three vegetables: four tomato seedlings, three kale (sukumawiki) seedlings and three pepper seedlings.
Horticulture is the ideal choice in small and temporary environments. Because most vegetables are lightweight they can survive in suspended containers, used car tyres, bags, tins, old shoes, among other improvised vessels.
What’s more, all these vessels can be got for free, because many people dump them as waste, or can be bought at much more affordable prices than vases sold in the market.
But the good news, Damba says, urban farming requires fewer pesticides. Some cost as cheap as Shs1,000 a sachet and can be mixed with 20 litres of water.
But more enterprising farmers can make their own organic pesticides and fertilisers from say, kitchen waste, banana peels, etc.
“We shall train some who will train others. But most of these formulas are so simple they can be learnt via the internet.”
In the wake of lockdowns, many town dwellers send their families to their rural homes, where food is cheaper.
But, Damba says, many urban families struggle because most of the members are unproductive dependants, who deplete the already meagre resources.
“But urban farming is one of the easiest ways to make all manpower productive,” he says. “It is also the easiest to monitor because the farm is at home. Even residential tenants can do it.”
How he did it
Damba raised his first tomato farm about 8 feet above the ground, in a space between two rental apartments. He used 18-litre plastic water bottles, which he gets for free.
He sat the bottles, each encircled with metal, on wooden ply in three rows. Each row has 17 bottles, making 51 tomato plants, one per bottle.
Damba says the bottles are spacious enough to allow the roots spread, enhancing the health of the plants.
During our visit, Damba’s son picked about 100 red tomatoes in 10 minutes. Each plant, Damba says, can produce up to 250 tomatoes in a lifespan of a year, depending on the conditions given to the plant.
The most popular eggplant or aubergines, he says, is the Solanum melongena, aka ‘moneymaker’. Damba says it is easy to grow and has a high-fruiting capacity, effective two months after planting.
Each seedling goes for Shs200 from trusted agro-dealers. Usually 60cm tall and 30cm wide, they occupy little space.
The agro-market is flooded with substandard seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers. So Damba advises farmers to identify reputable suppliers.
Vertical farming can be hydroponics—a form that requires little water, and no soil.
Justine Alinaitwe, a consultant at the KCCA Urban Farm, in Kyanja, says most urban farmers use hydroponics for growing fodder as livestock feed.
Fodder grown out of barley, wheat or maize seeds, is more nutritious than whole seeds on trays. And in five to eight days, it’s ready for the poultry and animals.
You can set up your vertical farm in that abandoned or unfinished building near you. Or you can use a metallic shipping container.
Damba recently added a pipe-farming unit, made out of welded metal on which he lined PVC pipes, plucked with holes, where he puts the soil and later plants vegetables.
Another innovation is wall farming which he made by sewing pockets gardens out of synthetic leather. The four rows and nine columns make 36 pockets, where he puts the soil before importing the vegetables here.
He slits each pocket twice near each bottom edge to allow water drip to the lower pockets, without affecting the wall.
The number of pockets and cost of the wall unit depends on the size of the wall it should cover. But a metre of the leather costs about Shs5,000 and labour is negotiable. For the pipe unit, if metal is expensive, wood is a cheaper substitute.
With a fish pond already dug and built, Damba will soon be advancing to aquaponics. Here, the water from the tank will trickle down into the fish pond. On its way out, it will dump its rich nutrients into the plant section. Afterward, the plant purifies the water which is recycled back into the pond. And the cycle continues.
Why vertical farming?
Such economical usage of essential yet scarce resources such as water, is what makes vertical farming a viable venture for urban dwellers. Damba shares his vegetables with his tenants, meaning if he goes commercial, the market is ready at his home.
Vertical farming also does not depend on seasons. With irrigation, one does not depend on rain fed farming. And using polyhouses, for those who can afford them, a farmer mitigates the dangers of heavy rains and winds.
Vertical farming also has unintended benefits because many herbs such as mint, lemongrass, rosemary, and lavender repel mice, snakes and insects. This is another indirect way of saving the money you would otherwise have spent on fighting those regular but uninvited guests to your home and their danger.
Damba adds that it is another practical way of engaging children, and inculcating a business mind-set in them.
“It gives them an alternative to counting on formal education.”
Mohammed Damba shares his vegetables with his tenants, meaning if he goes commercial, the market is ready at his home.
A farmer can choose to operate the irrigation manually or set it to automatic mode. The automatic mode will irrigate the garden at the specified time and switch the pump off after the specified time elapses.