/ 16 November 2018

Turn Africa’s cities into vertical farms

Aerofarms in Newark
Aerofarms in Newark, New Jersey, is the world’s largest high-tech vertical ‘farm’. It’s in a 9?144m2 warehouse, which has no sun or soil and uses less water


African cities, according to a World Bank report, are home to 472-million people — almost half of Africa’s total population. This number is expected to double by 2050.

One would expect these African cities to serve as hubs of productivity and hotspots of innovation where solutions to Africa’s problems, such as poverty, hunger and food insecurity, are born, incubated and implemented. One would also expect them to drive economic development and put the continent on a path towards achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

Yet residents of these rapidly urbanising cities face problems such as rising poverty, hunger, food insecurity and unemployment. Such difficulties generate stress for people, but also political, economic and environmental upheavals. These cities are ticking time bombs.

Nigeria, for example, was recently reported to have overtaken India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty. In another report, two of Nigeria’s cities, Abuja and Port Harcourt, were ranked high on a list of fragile cities. In Kenya, the people most vulnerable to food insecurity live in the cities, specifically in the slums. And the country’s growing unemployment, especially in cities has been described as a national disaster.

Although the problems are enormous, cities can also offer unique opportunities to reduce poverty, deliver prosperity and economic development and tackle other issues that affect agriculture, including climate change. But African cities can be turned into agricultural hubs.

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for many Africans and contributes on average 15% of Africa’s total gross domestic product. It is regarded as the sector that offers the greatest potential for reducing poverty and inequality.

African cites should consider the value of vertical farming. Conventional agriculture has driven many energetic, creative and tech-savvy young people away from the rural areas.

From Aerofarms in New Jersey in the United States and Sky Greens in Singapore to Grow Up in the United Kingdom, vertical farms are becoming part of the fabric of some of the world’s cities. These farms epitomise what innovation can produce.

Vertical farms use sophisticated technology and climate-controlled buildings to grow crops. Because it is a closed system, vertical farms use 95% less water than farming on land. Vertical farming in cities can help to deal with the problems of rapid urbanisation. It also offers urban residents pesticide-free food. And they can provide employment.

Of course, vertical farming also has its own set of unique problems, especially in Africa. These include unreliable sources of energy and water and startup costs are high. But establishing partnerships that include the government, the private sector, universities, research institutions and civil society can counteract these obstacles.

Some African cities are uniquely positioned to establish vertical farming. Take the case of Nairobi, home to Konza Technology City. The government set aside 2  00 hectares of land 64km south of Nairobi to develop this technology hub. Now, what if the city of Nairobi fills this space with skyscrapers that are growing fresh food for urban dwellers? It would be a place where families can go to have intimate encounters with the food they eat and where Nairobi’s unemployed youth would find meaningful work.

Through these partnerships, Nairobi could unlock the power of the city to deliver economic development for its residents and the continent. The city could set the pace for other African cities and put the continent on the path towards achieving sustainable development and prosperity for all.

Esther Ngumbi is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of entomology at the University of Illinois