Vertical farming: Empowering Cities to Be the Food Producers of the Future.

The year 2018 has started off with a bang for South Africa. The resignation of former president, Jacob Zuma, in February saw the country take the concept of ‘new year, new me’ to heart. The appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new South African president has ignited hope, with the long-awaited prospect of redemption now seemingly attainable. This turning point can be envisioned as South Africa’s chance at a major comeback, an opportunity to bring about radical improvement and growth, of which the nation is in such desperate need.

As with all comebacks, success begins with overcoming current setbacks. The state of the major cities in South Africa is a considerable hindrance faced by the country at present. With an astounding unemployment rate of 26.7 percent, compared to the 5.5 percent achieved by some developing countries, a large percentage of the population is subject to dire living conditions.

This is evident in the case where city buildings are constantly being hijacked and occupied, often utilised as hubs for prostitution and illegal trade. Projects to clean up the urban areas of South Africa are, however, in progress. The Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, is in the process of reclaiming hijacked buildings within the city and looking to renovate them into either low-cost housing or affordable spaces for small businesses.

The aim is to find purposes for disused and rundown building spaces thus aiding the creation of a safer and cleaner environment. Mashaba has opened proposals for premises which belong to the city, with expropriation applicable in cases where owners cannot be found or if money is owed. Taking this initiative into consideration, one such small business which is able to flourish under the given circumstances and propel the act of enhancing South Africa’s cities is that of vertical farming.

Vertical farming is based on the concept of urban farming in which crops are stacked vertically and successfully grown indoors using methods such as hydroponics and aeroponics. Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in nutrient rich water whereas aeroponics involves cultivation through the exposure of plant root systems to air along with nutrient mist. These agricultural systems can be successfully set up within limited indoor spacing, provided there is access to both water and electricity.

In essence, vertical farming offers a paradigm shift in the way society understands and practices agriculture. The implementation of this unique farming method has proven successful in old warehouses, inner city factories as well as the peripheries of buildings, and can perhaps even be extended to abandoned mines that have the appropriate infrastructure in place, with the City of Gold providing the perfect target.

This allows for the optimum use of land, with one acre of vertical indoor space equivalent to approximately 4 to 6 outdoor acres, depending on the type of crop grown. One of the most appealing advantages of hydroponic and aeroponic farming is that such cultivation systems use between 80% to 95% less water than conventional agricultural methods, a necessary consideration when taking into account the current water scenario that South Africa is facing.

In addition, neither method requires the utilisation of toxic pesticides or soil which eliminates the occurrence of harmful pollutants and soil erosion. Due to the fact that crops are grown in a monitored environment in which temperature and lighting are controlled according to optimum yield, all year-round produce is achieved.

Vertical farming also makes use of a closed set-up, thus both nutrients and water can be recycled, creating a sustainable system which does not pose threats to the ever-fragile environment. The placement of these unique farms in the city not only helps to overcome limited available land for agriculture, helping to reduce the impractical operation of deforestation, but further eliminates the need to transport produce over long distances and in doing so decreases transport costs and the emissions associated therewith.

The environmental benefits speak for themselves, many of which are inconceivable within conventional farming. Since food production affects multiple tiers of society, vertical farming can be further associated with both social and economic development.  The introduction of vertical farming into South African cities will not only aid to rejuvenate neglected neighbourhoods, but in addition serves to create numerous job opportunities in the proximity of the individuals who need them the most.

The system has the potential to help raise employment levels and facilitate the fight against crime. The farming methods employed are supportive of adaptation and improvement, presenting numerous research opportunities.  This reinvention of agriculture allows for food supply to be in the control of the people residing within cities, with increases in food security also able to contribute towards widespread improvements in public health.

As with any novel development, however, it is inevitable that limiting factors need to be considered.  While the basic infrastructure is already in place with most of the buildings of interest in the major cities having access to electricity and water, the cost of setting up a comprehensive vertical farm can be quite high. Crop production involves the use of space, light, carbon dioxide and water, which is freely available in nature but is supplied at an expense in the case of urban farming.

Since light has to be provided artificially and temperature controls are required, the entailed energy demand can be fairly excessive. The movement, however, can be initiated with small setups, preferably on rooftops with access to sunlight and energy supply can be aided by the incorporation of solar power which is where investors are able to contribute towards the cause. Buildings must also be stable enough to withstand the weight of the farming apparatus. Wheat, maize and rice are typically not able to be grown within vertical farms due to the dry weight associated with such crops, however, the farming technique supports the production of numerous high-value nutritious produce, such as tomatoes, lettuces and green crops.

With all factors considered, a few manageable issues should not be allowed to obscure a vision which has so much to offer.  Vertical farming has become a worldwide trend due to the significant rewards associated with the practice and is expected to be valued at US$5.80 billion by the year 2022.

Now is the time to become part of a profitable trend which works with the environment rather than against it. Now is the time that as a nation we start planting the seed of change, through the implementation of vertical farming, across the skylines of South Africa.

Author: Megan Blignaut

1 Comment

  1. Sean Williams on

    Morning, I am looking into vertical farming.

    I am completely new to farming and was looking at vertical farming as I believe hydroponics is the way to go.

    Is it possible to be able to also do aquaculture with vertical farming, as I would like to maximise space usage.

    What are the ideal crops to be grown in vertical farms?

    What would be an ideal warehouse size and also what would be the approximate startup costs.

    Thank you.

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Green Building Africa promotes the need for net carbon zero buildings and cities in Africa. We are fiercely independent and encourage outlying thinkers to contribute to the #netcarbonzero movement. Climate change is upon us and now is the time to react in a more diverse and broader approach to sustainability in the built environment. We challenge architects, property developers, urban planners, renewable energy professionals and green building specialists. We also challenge the funding houses and regulators and the role they play in facilitating investment into green projects. Lastly, we explore and investigate new technology and real-time data to speed up the journey in realising a net carbon zero environment for our children.

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