“African Desert Greenhouse” – The Oxymoron that could
It was probably in 2011 when I realized that I had seen the same picture over and over again for the past 17 years. You know the one with the starving African child with flies round his mouth? Yup! That’s the one! I’m 26 now and that image has not changed, a large portion of Africa is still at the mercy of foreign assistance as her people languish for all international press to see…Hi, I’m Lillian Beauttah, a civil engineer turned social entrepreneur and I intend to feed these people (I also approve this message, just incase you were wondering).
As Afrika Jilishe our aim is to increase the resilience and adaptive capabilities to climate change of nomadic pastoralists and other communities within the ASALs ( Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) by making use of high tech, low cost, innovative and considered solutions. As climate change turns what were already unfavourable conditions into unlivable ones, Kenya that is made up of 80% arid land, still relies heavily on rain fed agriculture.
Between July 2011 and mid-2012, a severe drought affected the entire East Africa region. Said to be “the worst in 60 years” the drought caused a severe food crisis …that threatened the livelihood of 9.5 million people. Almost 50 years post –independence, we were still unable to adequately feed our people.
So the question now is how are we going to do that, right?
Answer: Building desert green houses based on Terrarium Crop Cultivation Technology (TCCT).
The Terrarium is a glass biosphere modular unit containing growing medium in the form of an engineered soil layer that is closed off entirely to the natural elements.
Within the unit, water vapour is transpired and condensed on the glass surface producing water enabling the sustenance of plant life. This cyclic water generating process as well as the humid atmospheric conditions within this artificial ecosystem mimics that of the earth creating viable crop growing conditions that require a minimal amount of water.
Seeds are sown within the unit, housed in a shipping container (12.0m x 2.3m x 2.4m) clad in acrylic glass which is sealed off to air tight specifications opened only for harvest. TCCT is designed specifically for low maintenance and intensive farming practices making it suitable for those nomadic inhabitants of ASALs with little to no agricultural expertise.
As an efficient agribusiness, Afrika Jilishe will lower the cost of agricultural production allowing for a considerably more intensive production system on smaller acreage. Its menial moisture requirement design eliminates the need for irrigation infrastructure thus further reducing production costs. The method also eliminates the need for farm implements.
Mechanisms and channels incorporated into our business model allow for these ‘pastoralist farmers’ to sell their produce directly to distribution markets building an equitable and just partnership that in turn natures a stronger more dynamic community through economic empowerment and improved living.
As social enterprise, Afrika Jilishe’s sustainable business model is based on product sales of our modular units.
Individual households within a pastoralist community purchase these units jointly (allowing for direct ownership) on the basis of a small-scale business loan. On sale of agricultural produce, a sum of the profit is employed in paying off the micro loan over a period of 2 -3 years.
We are currently at a development phase that includes rapid prototyping and testing using small-scale terrarium replica models through which establishment of the most favourable crop growing conditions in terms of temperature, humidity and soil type is being undertaken. On completion of this stage, the model will be scaled up then after several iterations it will be ready for beta testing.
Of the US$5000 grant, US$2500 will go into Research and Development, this being split into US$500 to compete prototype testing and US$2000 to manufacture two working models that will be set up in the Magadi and Makueni regions of Kenya. The criteria used to establish these two locations is proximity to Nairobi, in a bid to reduce transportation costs at this phase and that in the recent past both have been on relief rood assistance.
US$200 will be required to purchase seeds and an additional US$800 to eliminate any flaws in the design. The remaining US$1000 will be split into US$500 for an awareness raising program within these communities and US$500 for operations. The steps we need to take to ensure success of this project include sustainable human centric design for the model, grass root data collection and prior community and local government engagement.
Our indicators for potential success will include a harvest 3-4 times a year compared to the current twice a year status and our ability to fully engage the women who we intend to be fully responsible for the management of these units and sale of produce. Failure to launch of previous initiatives within ASALs is primarily due to the socio-economic differences and lack of agricultural know-how. Due to the low-maintenance and self-sustaining nature of TCCT, infringement of traditional cultural practices will be minimal. This sign of respect for socio-economic differences will be a win not only for Afrika Jilishe as mark of social sustainability but more importantly will be valued by the community.
What skill sets will I be levering on?
My background in engineering comes with a transferable skill set, primarily oriented towards solving complex problems that I tap into through the design, innovation and testing processes.
In terms of experience, I completed 20 weeks (900 hours) of social enterprise management within the IDEX Global Fellowship Program, working in Mumbai in a sustainable engineering social enterprise. Through IDEX I underwent approximately 100 hours of intrapreneurship training, capacity building and curriculum content that focused on Managing Social Innovation, Advocacy & Outreach, Resource Mobilization and Impact Measurement with specifics to building a Social Return on Investment (SROI) calculator.
And finally, what keeps me going?
The innate need to shed a different light on the African story, one of innovation and ingenuity but primarily to reaffirm a dignity of her people once obscured by hunger and dependency. The only other appropriate time to do that is now. I invite you to assist in your own capacity in making this a reality.
 Swahili for ‘ Africa Feed Yourself ‘.
 Humanitarian Crises Analysis ( Somalia including Kenya) – 2015
Blogpost and pictures submitted by Lillian Beauttah (Kenya) – limobachi(at)gmail.com
The content, structure and grammar is at the discretion of the author only.
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