Instead of soil it uses hydroponics, a technique to grow plants in water which uses around a twentieth the amount of liquid as conventional watering. Picture: YouTube.com
INTERNATIONAL – Olivia Phillip, a grade six learner at Otjomuise Primary School in Namibia's capital, Windhoek, gently applied fertilizers to water at a shaded hydroponics garden at the school.

Soon after, she tested the PH level of the water at the greenhouse. "I have to make sure the water fertilizers are infused in the right quantity and that the PH level is optimal so that the vegetables grow in a nutrient-rich water bed to secure a good harvest," the 12-years old Phillip said.

The garden boosts beetroots, variety of lettuce, spinach, and cabbage. Phillip is one of the 20 learners at the school trained in early 2019 on hydroponics gardening technique, piloted as an alternative way to promote sustainable school gardens.

The garden was established after the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) commissioned hydroponics technician, John Sserwanga in October 2018 to establish hydroponics gardens in schools and communities.

"With hydroponics, nutrients and fertilizers are directly put into the water; thus, crops feed on nutrients straight from the water. Unlike soil planting, where some nutrients would be lost, leading in minimal development or no development at all," said Sserwanga on Tuesday.

Elvis Odeke, an official at WFP in Namibia, said that the objective of the initiative is to introduce an alternative cost-effective technology that can be used to produce an assortment of fresh vegetables to supplement the school diet but also increase consumption of vegetables by learners and communities.

"Micro-nutrient deficiency in Namibia is relatively high. Anemia has one of the highest prevalence in the country. And vegetables are rich in micro-nutrients. The learners will get iron, vitamin A and C, and fiber, and this is the gap that will be filled," Odeke said.

The project planted more than 144 plants on a space of 1.5 meters by 5 meters. All are growing in high density. Moreover, to oversee and ensure project sustainability, Sserwanga also trained three teachers at the schools.

Lucia Katuuo, a focal teacher of the hydroponics garden at the school, said that since inception, 60 percent of yields has been instrumental in improving the nutrition of more than 700 learners of the total 1,500 school population benefiting from the Namibia School Feeding Programme implemented by the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture.

The Namibia School Feeding Programme serves a daily fortified maize meal each school day to more than 370,000 primary learners countrywide. The aim is to provide both educational and health benefits to vulnerable children, thereby increasing enrolment rates, reducing absenteeism, and improving academic performance.

"At our school, more learners are taking the meal following its diversification with the garden harvest, the concentration has increased, and absenteeism declined," she said.

According to Katuuo, a portion of the vegetables, constituting 40 percent of the produce, in particular, lettuce is sold to the local market to generate funds to run the hydroponics garden.

"The school made more than three sales thus far, with funds apportioned towards security and to purchase fertilizers," she said. Meanwhile, plans are underway to roll-out the project to other schools.

A total of eight schools in the Khomas, Hardap, and Omaheke regions are earmarked to benefit from the project. This will be done within the scope of the Home Grown School Feeding Programme framework, currently being developed by the Education Ministry in partnership with the WFP.

In the interim, Odeke said that one million Namibian dollars($68,000) are earmarked for 12 to 14 greenhouses. The funds include investment for the structure, the hydroponics systems, and technical fees as well as minimal funds as maintenance/start-up for schools.

XINHUA