Vertical farms are indoor vertical farms that use climate-controlled buildings and high-tech lighting to grow leafy greens and herbs while using less soil and water. This is because the closed system uses 95% less water compared to traditional farms. Aeroponics and hydroponics systems are used by most vertical farms, which means they don’t require soil. Instead, nutrients for the plants are delivered via water or mist. This technique is perfect for meeting the challenges posed by urbanization and consumers’ increasing demand for pesticide-free, high-quality food.
It’s not uncommon. Vertical farming has been steadily increasing in North America and Asia in recent years. In the US, Chicago has several vertical farms. AeroFarms is the largest vertical farm in the world. Vertical farms are also more common in Japan and Brazil. Vertical farming will be worth US$5.80 Billion in 2022 if the trend continues.
Africa is facing similar trends, which require it to consider vertical farms. Firstly, it is urbanising rapidly. In 2025, more than 70 percent of the population will live in cities. Second, urban consumers demand and are willing to spend more on high-quality, pesticide-free food.
Africa has yet to experience a boom in vertical farming despite the fact that it shares many of the same trends.
Several unique versions have appeared on the continent. These examples show that vertical farms in Africa may not follow the same model as other countries. It is important to determine what the entry barriers are and what African entrepreneurs can do to encourage more vertical farms to emerge.
Vertical farming: Barriers and opportunities
Initial financial investments can be huge. A modern vertical farm (6,410sqm), capable of producing 1 million kilograms of produce per year, can cost up to between $80 and $100 million.
Research must also be funded upfront. Before they launch, many vertical farms that are successful in developed countries, such as the Netherlands, invest in research. The research can range from determining the best system to use, the lighting system, or seed varieties that will work for the farm.
Another barrier is the lack of reliable, consistent energy. Many African cities experience frequent power outages, which could be a challenge for innovators who want to start a vertical farming business.
Entrepreneurs who are considering vertical farming in Africa must consider these challenges and apply more creativity and innovation to their building methods.
Installing and maintaining them should be cheaper. Also, they must take into account the local materials. Instead of relying on LED lighting systems, African versions could use solar energy and locally available materials like wood. It is important that entrepreneurs start small and test low-tech innovations in order to find out what works.
Vertical farms will continue to vary as innovators in Africa figure out what they like.
In Uganda, for example, facing a lack of resources to build a vertical farm and limited access to water and land, urban farmers have turned to vertically stacked wooden crates. These simple units are composed of a central vermicomposting room. The crops are irrigated continuously using water bottles. These vertical gardens are stacked to save water. They allow urban farmers to produce vegetables like kale for urban markets. In Kampala, 15 vertical farms are currently in place. They hope to increase the number of these farms in the next few years.
In Kenya, Sack Gardens are a practical and local form of vertical farming. Designing and building sack gardens made of sisal fibers is cheap. One sack is about $0.12. They use fewer resources and local materials but still produce the same results as vertical farms. Many have turned to sack gardening. In Kibera, for instance, more than 22,000 families have been farming on sacks.
Ukulima Tech also builds modern vertical farms in Nairobi for clients. It has created four prototypes for vertical farms: tower gardens, hanging gardens A-Frames, and diverse park. These prototypes all use a variation on the vertical garden theme. They keep water usage to a minimum and grow vegetables in an enclosed, insect-free environment.
Vertical farms are a unique opportunity for the continent. Future entrepreneurs and innovators should think about how they can grow vegetables in a way that meets the growing demand for Africa’s super vegetables from urban consumers. Urban dwellers are a ready market for startups because of their popularity. These vegetables have already become popular in Nairobi.
Vertical farming, and its variants, is one of the innovative methods that can be used to produce fresh, nutritious, and pesticide-free foods for African consumers.