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Seeds of hope: Hydroponics tech in Zambia boosts school meals

To mark the sixth annual Africa Day of School Feeding, the World Food Programme highlights a greenhouse initiative that allows food to be grown all year round
, By Sophie Smeulders
Green light: David and his mother Diana with rapeseed leaves growing in recycled plastic bottles at their home in Kitwe. Photo: WFP/Sophie Smeulders

David is learning to grow avocado, green peppers, chillies, rapeseed leaves and potatoes using hydroponics techniques. “My dream is to become a hydroponics expert,” he says. Hydroponics is a soilless cultivation technique that enables plant growth all year round. It uses up to 90 percent less water and 75 percent less space than traditional agriculture, while growing crops 100 percent faster.

The 13-year-old lives in Kitwe, Zambia — a country of 18 million people whose food security is threatened by extreme weather caused by climate change.


Sunnyside up: With professional gear out of reach, David improvises hydroponics tech at home. Photo: WFP/Sophie Smeulders

Each month the World Food Programme (WFP) supports thousands of people there, including smallholder farmers whose hopes of growing crops are crushed by long spells of dry weather. 

Smallholder farmers produce 90 percent of Zambia's food — and 80 percent of them are women. 

Rules of green thumb: WFP's John Serwanga, advises teachers and students at David's school. Photo: WFP/Paul Mboshya

For 1 million schoolchildren, locally grown crops and school gardens are critical to the school meals they receive — food is supplied as part of programmes to provide the nutrition that is essential for them to learn better and grow. 

In the absence of that, techniques such as hydroponics provide a lifeline to individuals and communities, enabling governments to nourish the next generation. This is a familiar story across the continent, and it explains why the African Union is keen to promote sustainable ‘home-grown’ school feeding on Africa Day of School Feeding.

WFP has supported the Government of Zambia to set up 23 greenhouses in schools across the country to pilot hydroponics. Each greenhouse shields around 2,000 plants which produce an estimated 1,300 kg of vegetables per month. Training’s been provided to more than 400 teachers, parents and students at the schools.

Schools are also piloting ‘grainy bag’ cultivation — growing crops in plastic or fabric bags with tiny holes for better drainage and oxygen. The soil in the bag is mixed with charcoal dust, an organic fertilizer which conserves soil pH levels and retains water to create a natural environment where crops can flourish.

Vegetables not only provide nutrients to help children develop and succeed, they help schools generate income from surplus production, which in turn sustains the hydroponics gardens.

Now schoolchildren like David are bringing their newly acquired knowledge home with the aim of growing fresh and nutritious produce for their families and utilising the technologies for their future livelihoods.

Grain drain: Chillies and green pepper growing in recycled maize meal bags. The soil was mixed with charcoal dust, an organic fertilizer. Photo: WFP/Sophie Smeulders

“We had our first harvest in the school greenhouse three weeks after planting,” says David. “I couldn’t believe it — plants used to take months to grow in the garden and would often dry up when we had no rain. They tasted so fresh.”

After visiting the school, “I was convinced right away,”  says David's mother. “I’d much rather grow my own vegetables, but space is an issue here in Kitwe.”

And hydroponics equipment is expensive.

“We used plastic buckets, recycled bottles, a plastic sheet and a chicken cage to set up the hydroponics site,” says David. “We couldn’t find any hydroponic fertilizer, so we used soil fertilizer in the water. For the bags, we used old maize-meal bags and charcoal dust as fertilizer.

“We had our first harvest of sweet potatoes a few weeks ago. They took three to four months to grow in the bags. Usually, they would take four to five months.”

Rooting for him: David's mother is behind him all the way. Photo: WFP/Sophie Smeulders

David hopes to harvest his green peppers soon. But his rapeseed leaves have been growing slower than expected.

John Serwanga, hydroponics consultant with WFP, calls the family with tips. “I told them to stop using soil fertilizer as it does not work in hydroponics sites. This is why the roots are turning brown and the plants are growing slowly.”

David says: “We hope that following these tips will help us harvest even more vegetables. My mother bought me some bricks so that I can make can an even bigger hydroponics site and keep finding new solutions to achieve my dream.”

H2Grow is a WFP innovation that brings locally adaptable and affordable hydroponic solutions to vulnerable communities around the world. In 2020, H2Grow globally impacted more than 26,500 people in nine countries with 800 active units in schools, refugee camps and urban informal settlements. Inspiring and training farmers to replicate the solution on their own to build self-reliance is at the heart of the initiative

Learn more about Africa Day of School Feeding