Pilot hydroponics projects in Honduras - 5 observations to bear in mind

Pilot hydroponics projects in Honduras - 5 observations to bear in mind

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Patricia Arce
Patricia Arce
Coordinador de Programas | Honduras

You're on your lunch break about to eat a salad of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. The last thing on your mind - unless you woke up wanting to flip over your whole day - is who produced the lettuce on your plate and how they did so, and the answer might make you second-guess the good or bad taste of your meal.

At Rikolto, we put in the work so that the food on your table is delicious and that, from its journey from its place of origin, it generates wellbeing for people and the environment, and vice versa!

With this vision - and the obvious difficulties caused by the pandemic in 2020 - we managed to collaborate with small-scale farmers, members of the Consorcio Agrocomercial de Honduras (CONAGROH) to set up 18 hydroponic systems for vegetable production in Honduras with funding from the European Union.

What is hydroponics? Rafael and Nolvia Zerón, a father and daughter farmer duo in Azacualpa, a municipality located in the north of Honduras, partners of Consorcio Agrocomercial, tell you all about it. (Don't forget to enable the subtitles!)

Hydroponics, as I would explain to my soon to be 4-year-old daughter, is using water as a means of transporting food (nutrients) directly to plants instead of soil.

This means less land use in contrast to conventional agriculture, which with the application of bad agricultural practices has caused the degradation of 75% of the world's land and the loss of 36 billion tonnes of soil per year.

Hydroponics is not the "ultimate" solution.

I want to emphasise that we acknowledge hydroponics is not the "ultimate" solution, through this pilot project we do however show that it is a viable alternative for mitigation and adaptation to climate change for small-scale producer families in Honduras.

The model used in this project has lead to lower percentages of vegetable losses (5% for lettuce), for example, while it allowed an increase in the number of vegetables produced per unit area due to the use of pyramid or table structures, and with this, it significantly increased the efficiency of production.

On 432 square metres in an open field in conventional agriculture, families produced about 3,000 lettuces. Compare this to hydroponics agriculture on 200 square metres, which produced 2,880 lettuce units.

Not to mention that this model subtracts from the equation the use of harmful agrochemicals for human consumption, which typically exposes the producers to these chemicals in a model of conventional agriculture in open fields.

However access to these technologies is limited for small-scale producers and the costs are significant, even more so in the initial phase which involves the installation of the structure and inputs.

With these considerations in mind, we started the project in 2019.

In my case, the main challenge was to cope with the pregnancy of my second child during the last months of the project as well as the pandemic. But let's leave that for another article.

I hope the following five lessons will help other development organisations, companies and/or farmer organisations to innovate by applying this model. Naturally the variables are dependent of the situation, so please bear that in mind.

1. Few companies have experience in the installation of hydroponic systems.

Only two suppliers participated in the bidding for the construction of the 18 systems. Imagine our surprise!

The Honduran market lacks this service, so this was to be expected. We chose the company that met our economic offer, and they informed us in advance that they did not have much experience in this type of structure.

The project coordination team was extensively involved in the design of the structures, from the purchase of construction inputs to the supervision of each greenhouse.

On-site supervision allowed us to make decisions according to each type of land where the farmers had arranged to build the structures, and to negotiate with the farmers whether it was really the right space for the slope, exposure to wind, etc.

In the end, we at Rikolto gained more experience, and so did the service provider.

A call for start-ups and entrepreneurs: providing this service could be a worthwhile business opportunity!

2. Your defined timeline can be disrupted by external factors... such as Covid-19

A project that was supposed to take 12 months eventually took 20 months due to the limitations of mobilisation, obligatory quarantine, and more. The construction of the systems was delayed, but we managed to accelerate the training processes for the producer families on the use of the systems.

With the participating families we organised workshops to address the importance of generational change and gender inclusion in producer organisations. We also established virtual meetings to learn about local recipes prepared with fruits and vegetables, and we developed a recipe book to inspire increased consumption of vegetables, and at the same time, their correct preparation for the health of the producer families.

The project team promoted the use of WhatsApp to organise trainings and technical assistance. At the end, we managed to get 432 CONAGRO farmers, including technicians and staff of farmers' organisations, to participate in the training sessions.

3. Crop production, harvesting and marketing results will be varied.

The farmers' organisations decided to grow 6 vegetables among the 18 systems: tomato, cucumber, sweet chilli, lettuce, spinach, and chard, because they are not only very nutritious but also of high economic value in Central America. The results were varied in each crop. We identified factors that should be well-defined when starting a pilot with hydroponics, which can be applied to other production systems.

  • The years of experience that the organisation or the producer has in applying a conventional farming model for the selected crops,
  • The attitude of the producers regarding the adoption of technologies and openness to discuss the recommendations of the technical staff of the project,
  • And the availability of equipment and basic inputs required by the crop, in the hydroponic greenhouse.

Nowadays, not all production systems are in place. The construction, adoption and sustainability of these systems must be accompanied by a technical assistance plan focused on communication and education activities with the producers and to lay the foundations for an assertive relationship with the technical staff that accompanies them.

During the public health crisis, the project's technical staff was dedicated to constantly monitoring producers by cell phone, which was a huge challenge, requiring interpersonal communication skills.

It was also key to communicate a farmer's "early victories", for example, to motivate a spirit of healthy competition for better results in cases where crops had not been brought to harvest for marketing.

4. Hydroponics is an attractive alternative to awaken the interest of youth in agriculture.

Among the families selected for the implementation of the systems we found several cases where the sons and daughters of the participants - who initially received the system - oversaw participation in the virtual trainings.

The young people were the ones most interested in receiving the training. There are even some youngsters taking charge of the systems, when initially it was their parents who oversaw the greenhouse.

5. It is worth investing time in identifying viable crops.

Upon completion of the project, economic and financial analyses were carried out for each crop. In this way the acquired knowledge of the 18 families with each crop in different scenarios is transmitted and can be replicated among the 6 partner organisations of CONAGRO.

The result was that the crops with the highest financial profitability measured by internal rate of return (IRR) and net present value (NPV) ended up being lettuce, chard, and spinach. While cucumber, chilli and tomato have operational profitability, it takes much longer to reach the return on investment.