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Growing food without soil

Who needs soil? Lettuce shown here growing out of gravel
Lettuce shown here growing out of gravel (Alex Alper/IRIN)

A small group of agriculturalists say it is possible to boost food production and cut malnutrition in Cape Verde by farming with less water - and no soil.

Less than 10 percent of the volcanic Cape Verde archipelago is cultivable and almost all of the country’s food is imported, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Hydroponics - which comes from the Greek words for water and labour - replaces soil with a nutrient solution. Hydroponics farmer Sergio Roque Monteiro told IRIN he learned to farm without soil in Brazil before moving to Cape Verde in 2000. Since 2006 he said the government and non-profit groups have asked him to train more than 100 people - but he knows of only six people who have continued soilless cultivation professionally.

“People are traditional and generally do not like new technology,” Monteiro said. “The big problem is lack of awareness.”


In his 15-sqm greenhouse on Santiago Island, home to the capital Praia, Monteiro grows watercress, lettuce and other vegetables, which he sells to local hotels and restaurants. By substituting gravel for soil and recycling a continuous stream of water and minerals through trays that hold 600 lettuce and 200 watercress plants, Monteiro told IRIN he uses less than one-fifth of the water and a fraction of the land that traditional farmers use.

Still his yield is higher, he said. “Soil is full of contaminants that weaken plant growth.”

He said if there is no electricity to power his water pump, hand watering is vital. “The biggest disadvantage is the plants need constant watering because there is no soil to keep them moist. If they go without water for a few hours, they die.”

But more than the continuous energy and constant watering needed to run a hydroponics system, high start-up costs discourage converts, said Monteiro. “I spent US$17,000 to set up my system, but I made that back within one year. And I am ready to expand now, four years later. I cannot keep up with demand. ”

Most set-up materials are available for local purchase: tank, netting, iron or wood and cement. In order to test the acidity of the mineral nutrient solution, farmers must either hire a local agricultural company or import special equipment.


Monteiro said he earns up to $2,300 per month, a third of which is reinvested in business costs, but that hydroponics can raise more than just income. “This is a country where people lack nutrients. Bad soil, lack of sunlight and water limit local production. But hydroponics can help fill that production and nutrition gap by planting products that used to be grown when the island had more water.”

Climate change has been blamed for the islands’ declining rainfall, which has caused water shortages.

About one in 10 people - slightly more in rural areas - is malnourished with less than 65 cents a day to buy food, according to a government study conducted with the Food and Agricultural Organization; the recently released report used 2002 data.

Residents cautiously embrace the technology. “I would think a tomato grown in soil would be richer,” said Praia resident Raul Pereira Mendes. “But I do not know. I have heard people say food grown without soil attracts fewer bugs.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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