Rashid: The Zanzibari smart farmer tackling food insecurity

Rashid: The Zanzibari smart farmer tackling food insecurity

Rashid Rashid is running Zanzibar's only hydroponics farm.
Rashid Rashid at his hydroponics farm. / Photo: Rashid / Photo: Rashid Rashid  / Photo: Reuters

By Charles Mgbolu

Zanzibar is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. Its islands are beautiful from above with swirling blue waves and sparkling beach sand.

But life on the ground is far from glamourous as like many communities scattered across East Africa, it struggles with inadequate food security for its rapidly growing population of approximately 800,000 residents.

More than 10,000 acres of its farmlands were destroyed or severely affected by drought in 2006, according to a UN agency.

From 2020 on the East African region witnessed severe droughts with below-average rainfall that lasted until late 2022. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that the rainy season of March to May 2022 remains the driest on record in the last 70 years.

Acute food insecurity

A recent UN analysis on food security challenges in Zanzibar said around 147,000 people were facing acute food insecurity because of sharp increase in food prices, prolonged dry spells and erratic rainfall .

Local famers like Rashid Rashid have had to think on their feet. He is running the only hydroponics farm on the Zanzibar, a technique of growing plants using soilless techniques.

‘’Hydroponics is the technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution rather than soil. We grow products like leafy greens, vegetables, roots, and other legumes using fertiliser from fish waste that has been filtered and put into our hydroponics systems,’’ he told TRT Afrika.

‘’With hydroponics, we recycle the water over and over again. We put water pumps in the system, which recycles the water. The water goes into the farm and comes back to the reserve tank using gravity.’’

Hydroponics uses less land and water than conventional methods. Photo: Rashid Rashid 

Depleted land

It is technology that comes at a crucial time for the island, which is not only confronted by the weather but also depleting land resources.

‘’Unfortunately, large swathes of arable land that we have are the ones people use for construction and other projects. This has really reduced the agricultural lands available to farmers in Zanzibar.’’

‘’We had to go to areas where people would rather not go to farm, and we have converted those areas into farming areas,’’ Rashid said.

It was apt for a hydroponics farmer like Rashid, who needs very little land space to operate a system that turns out significant yields.

‘’I currently grow about 3,000 heads of lettuce per month on a 200-square-metre land area. If I were not doing hydroponics, I would need about 2000 square metres of land, or more than 10 times what I am currently using, to be able to produce the same harvest yield,’’ he explained.

Chance encounter

‘’This all started back in 2008, when I worked in a hotel as an accounting clerk and saw the gaps in fresh fruit and vegetable supplies, especially for hoteliers. But then, the idea didn’t quite form until after my masters at the University of Dundee, Scotland, where I went to study oil and gas management.’’

‘’It was there that I attended some free classes that gave me insights into hydroponics farming, and immediately I knew this was the answer to a critical challenge that confronts my home country,’’ Rashid explained.

Rashid said he is humbled that his farm is getting public attention, but he is concerned that many still do not see the big picture of the gains of large-scale investment in hydroponics farming.

‘’It can be disappointing that the people in positions who should be seeing the big changes that would help farming positively in Zanzibar are still not seeing the big picture and the huge potential in hydroponics farming.’’

Hydroponics guarantees higher yields due to greater control that farmers have on farming conditions. Photo: Rashid Rashid 

Spread the message

Nonetheless, Rashid is working hard to spread the message of hydroponics on the islands.

‘’It is perhaps our strongest and smartest response yet to the challenge of climate change and other factors that constantly confront our islands and threaten food sources for so many people,’’ he says.

Rashid is currently working with international aid agencies like USAID to train young Zanzibaris on the potential of this smart farm technology.

‘’I have trained about 70 young people, starting from age 15 to 35, in smart farming for not just my smart farming system alone but many other systems as well.’’

In 2022, Rashid was awarded the ‘Feed the Future Tanzania’ award by the USAID for his impact in promoting smart technology in grassroots farming.

‘’I do not count my work as accomplished just yet, as a lot still needs to be done to bet. Africa must continue to find new ways to tackle the challenges that confront food security on the continent, and hydroponics should be the way to go,’’ he concludes.

TRT Afrika