Africa-Press – Rwanda. Many students go to university but few think about creating businesses that can even help them afford some basic needs at school. Marie Aline Iraguha , 22-year-old young female student currently second year African Leadership University, has beaten the odds by founding AliFarms Group Ltd, an agribusiness that focuses on growing fruits and vegetables with the mission of empowering youth through sustainable agriculture. Currently she is in trials of investing in hydroponic farming technology with fruits and vegetables.
Currently Iraguha is in trials of investing in hydroponic farming technology with fruits and vegetables. Photos: Courtesy.
Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil. “I always wanted to do something I like but at the same time giving back to my community, so I found my passion in agriculture,” she said.
In 2017, she came up with the idea of hydroponic farming and started to exploit all opportunities that can enable her. That is why she participated in an international student competition called Hult Prize whose theme was “Harnessing the lives of 1,000,000 people with an innovative idea which can bring impact”.
“So I was so interested to join the competition and I looked back to see one of the challenges in our society. So due to the fact that the population of Africa is rising day after day, we need food to survive, yet the land of agriculture is reducing because of buildings,”
“So I did research and came up with hydroponic agriculture which doesn’t require soil to grow plants and it uses less space compared to traditional agriculture,” she explained.
Although she didn’t pursue agriculture at school, Iraguha said she used different learning materials from online courses, training, YouTube videos and also talked to some experts in the agriculture sector for help.
“In 2018, I did my first hydroponic system where we grew lettuce and it was very successful as it was our first prototype for proof of concept. In 2021, I built the second system where we grew Strawberries and the purpose was prior to investment,” she said.
So far she has grown lettuce and strawberries adding there are other kinds of crops that can be grown like; tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watercress, spinach, celery and some herbs.
“We planted 32 lettuce pieces during my trial and harvested 60 Kilogrammes which is two times more than harvested from traditional agriculture,” she said. She said that after trials she is preparing to make hydroponic farming commercial.
“First and foremost, a hydroponic system grows nutrient-dense produce in greater quantities. In fact, hydroponic vertical farms can grow about 240 times more than traditional farming methods,” she said.
The young entrepreneur has also invested in watermelon farming using traditional farming methods where she employs seven people. She said she started with one hectare and is planning to use 3 hectares in the next season although this has not yet been successful.
“All the opportunities will make profit in the future and get financially independent,” she said.
Iraguha said hydroponics is turning her life around. “I made strong connections with different people who are experts in agriculture. Above all, I have been attending competitions with focus on the hydroponic system which opened doors for me and also I have been getting prizes from them including both certificates and money,” she said.
In 2018, she won 1st place in Hult Prize and 2nd place at national level. She won 2nd place in competition in line with World Environment Day 2018 at Impact Hub Kigali by World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
She also participated in The Fowler Social Global Innovation Challenge 2019 in California San Diego, Youth TVET Competition (Youth Connect) and won 1st place on Province level and also participated in ALU EL Innovate 2021 and won 1st place.
Challenges and advice
According to Iraguha, there are a lot of challenges that affect startups. “One of the challenges today is to get the investment because you can’t start a business without funds to finance it. In addition, because in Rwanda we are used to traditional agriculture it’s hard to introduce hydroponics to people, they have not yet understood it,” she said.
She advises youth that learning won’t all come from books and lecturers. “It doesn’t matter what you study at school, what matters most is your passion. If you like something, go for it. Everyone who has ever accomplished things in life has had many failures along the way. The key is how you learn from the failure to keep moving forward,” she said. People think that agriculture is for people who didn’t go to school but that is a lie, there is a lot of potential in agriculture, she added.
Benefits of hydroponic farming
Building a new hydroponic farm requires several things including land, the outer structure (polyhouse or greenhouse), growing structure, temperature maintaining system, water pumping system among others. According to agricultural experts, hydroponic farming saves space, water and uses fewer chemicals besides not using soil.
Field farming uses so much water because so much of it is lost but Hydroponic systems use about 10 times less water because it’s delivered in a controlled way while some systems recirculate water, reducing consumption even more.
Sample of vegetables harvested by Uraguha from hydroponic farming.
Plants grown in hydroponic systems grow 30 per cent to 50 per cent faster than those grown in soil. Another benefit of hydroponic farming is that it’s easy to do indoors and in hydroponic farming, plants grow healthier than in soil.
Because more plants can be grown in small spaces with hydroponic farming than soil farming, hydroponic systems typically yield more per square foot. Rwanda seeks to establish greenhouses and hydroponic facilities with a cost of Rwf8.28 billion by 2023/2024.