Ssempijja reaping from soilless innovations
With hydroponic farming, one cannot be affected by seasons and soil-borne diseases which have for long been a thorn in the flesh of farmers, causing losses.
Kenneth Ssempijja, the director of Hydroponic Farming Uganda at Masooli, Kasangati in Wakiso district, explains that as a farmer, he has lost his crops on many occasions due to fusarium wilt, a fungal disease, until he went for hydroponic farming.
“Despite cooking and roasting the soil as it has been done by many urban farmers and those farming from greenhouses, the diseases still manifest whenever the soil is watered because the bacteria will always be dormant awaiting favourable conditions,” he says.
Ssempijja owns three greenhouses where he grows English cucumber, tomatoes including; cherry, round and ordinary.
He also grows sweet pepper and other vegetables. His farming journey Ssempijja has a diploma in electrical engineering. However, while growing up, his father would tell him that money is in the soil because it is the backbone that supports everyone to stand tall.
“This stuck with me and I started farming in Primary Three with a garden at home. During Christmas, one could only get money for the day after selling his/her harvest. Therefore, he who did not have a garden, would never get money for clothes and buying soda and chapati during outings,” he says.
After sitting for Senior Four at DLK Muwonge SSS at Ntunda in Mukono district in2009, he stayed at his parents’ home at Kyabazaala-Mukono for three years, growing pawpaw.
“In 2012, I came to Ntinda to stay with my aunt, for further education in a technical institute. While at her place, I met her friend who had a plot of about 100ft by 50ft at Kisosonkole, Nalya. Because he was told that I was farming in the village, he asked me to use his land, but I did not know what to plant,” he recalls.
At the time, Ssempijja also applied to study for a certificate in electronics at Global Institute at Kubbiri (Bwaise), Kampala. He studied for two years and completed in 2014. He was advised that Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) was looking for people with land and were willing to establish coffee nursery beds.
Ssempijja then went to UCDA offices and applied. Luckily, he was given a two-year contract.
“On getting the contract, UCDA gave me a shade net for the nursery bed. After the expiry of the second contract, I chose not to renew it and I had to plan for the next move. I had visited some greenhouses and realised it was expensive and could not afford it,” he says.
After realising that soils can still bring about soil-borne diseases, Ssempijja went to the Internet to research other technologies he could use. He landed on hydroponics.
“I discovered that hydroponics was not popular in Uganda but was done better in Kenya.
“I jumped onto a bus and went to Kenya. I met a farmer who explained to me all about hydroponics. This was the practical training I got in addition to the YouTube videos,” he explains.
Ssempijja notes that hydroponic farming is the answer to the soil-borne diseases since it uses different mediums such as; stones (gravel), coco coir, vermiculite and sawdust.
He says the mediums do not support bacterial growth, but hold the plant firm and allow water, air and nutrients to move to all the plants. With these materials, a farmer will be safe and free from fusarium wilt.
In addition, the crops will receive water and flourish. The standard greenhouses are 9ftx30ft and can cost up to between shs12m and sh20m, depending on where you buy it. One can use the same greenhouse to grow various crops in different seasons. The medium can be used for five years.
“After the greenhouse is constructed, I make nine beds using any medium. I usually use gravel that is held by Mapal troughs to hold the stones and lets water fl ow well. This makes it cheaper without relying on foreign supplies,” he explains.
Mapal troughs enable hydroponics growers to collect, re-use or recycle the water and nutrients.
“I can plant 1,000 cucumber plants in nine lines. However, with the same lines, I can plant 1,800 tomatoes because of the small spacing,” he explains.
Ssempijja explains that the magic in hydroponic farming is done in the tank that supplies water to the greenhouse.
“All that matters is the nutrients from the fertilisers which a plant needs to grow well. This is consideration of the growth stages which include flowering, fruiting and maturity stages,” he says.
Because these crops are fed on nutrients mixed with water, one needs to be trained on what different plants need at each stage.
Nutritional requirements vary from one plant to another. This system is smart and requires less labour than other farming ones.
Ssempijja says he has one worker with whom he manages the greenhouses. “You will always have a clean harvest and save water since you can recycle it, he says.
Ssempijja says he established a greenhouse from his savings and the earnings he got from selling tomatoes.
“But when I was about to start, I was told that I could not manage a greenhouse without an agronomist who would be advising me on the best practices. I was frustrated because I did not have money to pay an expert. I decided to do it my way,” he says.
He, however, realised that he needed technical knowledge. He took to YouTube where he learnt a lot. While there, he landed on an application, Plantix, where one takes a picture of a sick crop and it describes the disease and alternative pesticides.
In 2019, Ssempijja went to Sam Sseruwagi who leased him a plot of 80ftx110ft from at sh2.5 for five years in a parental spirit. The first greenhouse cost sh12m because he did not know the market well.
However, by the time he got to the second greenhouse, he had learnt many lessons and spent about sh7m.
“I construct my own greenhouses using local materials such as eucalyptus poles, 90% shade nets and UV-plastic polythene (200 microns). I had to think more about what medium to use because soils could still react after watering to breed wilt despite being boiled,” he says.
Ssempijja went for tomatoes in 2017 where he planted 150 plants.
He used sh1m but made a loss because he only earned sh40,000.
“The variety I planted had no market in Uganda because it was very small like eggplant (entula). The only customer I got, ordered for tomatoes worth sh100,000 on credit and paid only sh40,000. He said he could not pay the balance nor come for more because he did not have buyers for my tomatoes,” he recalls. This is one of the tomato varieties from France.
Ssempijja says it is sweet but not known to Ugandans and, therefore, lacked market.
“Although I did not get profits, it was a learning experience. I learnt how to cook the soil, potting, helping the plant to climb and using pesticides, among others,” he says.
He says he could not stick to coffee because he did not have the capital. He then decided to go back to tomato growing.
However, this time round, he planted Ana F1 variety in the same year (2017). He spent about sh70,000 for the project.
He earned about sh2m owing to the fact that his harvest came during scarcity, which attracted high prices in the market.
The land that Ssempijja hired has a spring well. He also dug a small water reservoir in which he has stocked 1,000 tilapia fish.
He says: “Each greenhouse uses 2,000 litres of water a week. We irrigate twice a week using 1,000 litres each round. With this system, the water is collected and returned to the tanks for reuse.”
Ssempijja says he saves water. However, during the dry season, one using soils has to irrigate every day which means he uses 14,000 litres a week.
Ssempijja’s biggest challenge is in the market where organic and open fi eld produce is sold on the same stall and price. He says his produce is organic and grown in a controlled environment with few diseases and pest invasion.
Considering such factors, Ssempijja says would call for a higher price since it is healthier than those under the conventional system.
“I wish those of us practising the organic agriculture would form an association where we can command higher prices because our produce has healthier benefi ts than those under conventional systems,” he says.
The first lockdown found Ssempijja with ready cucumber and cherry tomatoes.
“For cherry tomatoes, I could not supply to my customers at Nakasero Market and I made losses. I would give the cucumber to my fi sh. I made a loss of about sh7m,” he recalls.
Ssempijja says he then realised that he needed to focus more on value addition. He explains that during the lockdown, he would have made tomato juice and cucumber and reserved his harvest.
His dream is to have 10 acres of land filled with well-stocked greenhouses.
Ssempijja wants to be known worldwide because then, he produce a lot and supply to international markets.
“With the current economic situation, farming seems to be the only profi table business that anyone can do. Everyday there are new customers in terms of mouths to feed locally and internationally. This is an advantage to farmers,” he says.
Ssempijja advises the youth to stop waiting for handouts because they think they do not have cash capital to start. He advises youth to start with the little they have and start from whatever they have.
He points out that each person is their biggest cheerleader.