In a backyard in Zimbabwe's capital, a 50-year-old mother of two is using hydroponics to grow vegetables for some of Harare's top restaurants, defying drought and an economic crisis that have left millions needing food aid.
Venensia Mukarati, whose day job is an accountant, always had a passion for farming, but no land on which to plant. Just over two years ago she did a web search on how to grow vegetables on the deck of her Harare house, importing a small hydroponics system from Cape Town for $900 that enables plants to draw soluble nutrients from water.
"Hydroponics farming saves water and I really enjoy it because I don't have to worry about water, I don't have water here, so I have to buy water but because its Hydroponics, I am saving water by 90 percent. The other reason why I opted for hydroponics farming is the growth rate of hydroponics, it's faster and I can harvest even much much faster than the soil based farming," Mukarati said in a 46 square-metre greenhouse where water flowed in a maze of pipes decked with plants.
Her immediate desire was for fresh vegetables for the family as the country's economic fortunes deteriorated and grocery store prices spiraled. But she quickly realized her pastime could be a profitable venture. It now makes $1,100 a month - in a country where some government workers get just $76.
In hydroponic farming water is conserved because it is reused multiple times. Hydroponically grown plants also require no pesticides because there are no soil-borne diseases.
"When you are farming in soil you need more water and then the production rate will be less than what is happening in hydroponics farming. When you are doing hydroponic farming your crops grows faster by a third, which means about 33 percent and you tend to harvest it in a shorter period than when you are doing conventional farming; when you are farming in the soil. So hydroponics farming helps so much, especially when there is no water or where there is no rain because it saves water, less time of production and you can produce as much as you want, even on a space, which is limited like in this farmer."
Much of southern Africa is in its worst drought in more than a century, with crops failing and some 45 million people in need of food aid. The region's temperatures are rising at twice the global average, says the International Panel on Climate Change, spurring the need for innovative ideas to get food on tables.
Harare also faces chronic water shortages due to ageing pipes and a shortage of dollars to import treatment chemicals.
It takes six weeks for Mukarati to harvest vegetables such as lettuce compared to 10 weeks if the crop is grown in the soil.
She initially grew 140 plants per cycle - now she produces 2,600, including lettuce, cucumbers, spinach and herbs in two greenhouses fed by a makeshift system using gutter pipes from the roof.
Lesley Lang, a restaurant owner who buys Mukarati's produce twice a week, said she had "Her lettuce is of such a high quality, which I use a lot of it, so I've had her supply me for over a year now twice a week in bulk amounts, she packages it beautifully, it's always amazingly fresh, has no blemishes on it whatsoever, doesn't even need me to put into a special liquid to make sure that its completely fumigated, it's the best lettuce I have ever had the pleasure of buying in Zimbabwe, so her hydro farming is obviously the way forward."
"We have a problem with water, in fact the whole world has a problem with water. Hydroponics is very water sensitive, the amount of water used is a fraction from normal agriculture purposes, what we prefer also in the market is that the product comes with it's roots on, therefore it has a much longer shelf life. The customer can take the product home and put it in water and it'll continue to live and to thrive," added another one of Mukarati, David Reeler.
Mukarati hopes to quadruple production from June by constructing bigger greenhouses on 2,600 square metres of land on the outskirts of Harare.
Last year, she began training others to do the same, designing a hydroponic "starter pack" which she sells for $200.
(GIFT SUKALA, SISIPHO SKWEYIYA)