Today, a kilogram of melon costs $20 in Congo Brazzaville—a country where the daily wage for a typical worker is just four (4) dollars.
This basic food item is far beyond the financial reach of an ordinary person in the world’s second-poorest country.
I’m working with partners to solve this growing challenge with technology.
As an architect by trade and a technology-focused farmer in Mali, I grow off-season fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. We started with tomatoes and have moved into cucumbers, peppers, green beans, melons, and watermelons, and even roses.
Our efforts have succeeded so well that farmers and entrepreneurs around Africa have taken notice. They see how the technology of greenhouses can create new opportunities for growing food and employing people.
My projects now have included eight hectares of greenhouses in Bamako, the capital of Mali, as well as a hectare of greenhouses in both Burkina Faso and Chad. I also have partnerships in Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Niger.
Last month, I visited Congo to meet with a potential investor who contacted me through my company’s Facebook page. He would like to build 15 greenhouses—and make melons and other fruits and vegetables more affordable for the people of Congo Brazzaville.
Greenhouses are climate-controlled structures with transparent walls and ceilings that allow farmers to grow crops in places where they can’t survive outside. Most of Mali, for example, is in a region known as the Sahel, which separates the Sahara Desert from the coastal areas of West Africa. It’s dry and hot. These conditions make it impossible to grow most crops.
Greenhouses change the equation. They protect fruits and vegetables from weather, while still admitting the sunlight that crops need for photosynthesis. Farmers who use them can supply water and fertilizer as necessary, and then watch crops flourish in locations where they would otherwise shrivel and die.
Greenhouses can be found in almost every shape and size. The world’s largest is in the UK and called the Eden Project. It contains an entire rainforest.
Mine are much different and more practical. They are small and inexpensive—and perfectly suited for the limitations and opportunities of the African market. My partner is Netafim, a manufacturing company based in Israel, which also needs to grow food in an arid environment. This collaboration is a good example of the international cooperation that often lies behind the best agriculture.
Our greenhouses are turnkey, tailor-made operations that take into account the specific needs and challenges the owner needs to address. Farmers who build the metal frames and then attach the clear plastic roof and walls of insect proof filets can get started immediately. My company helps with installation and training. This model of cooperation makes it possible to reduce costs and save time.
Congo is a promising location for greenhouses. It’s the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, and it has more arable land than any other nation on the continent. It has the potential to feed 2 billion people, according to one estimate. Yet only about 10 percent of it is cultivated and the Congo population depends on imports for 90 percent of its food.
Poverty is a big part of the problem because agriculture requires investment. The other challenge is the climate: In Congo, it rains constantly. Crops need water, but too much water can be as deadly as too little water. Lots of plants simply drown in these wet conditions.
This is the opposite of what I face as a farmer in Mali, where the main threat is drought. Yet in both my country and in Congo, greenhouses offer an alternative. They are remarkably versatile.
The massive rainfall in Congo even presents an opportunity. All that water must go somewhere, and much of it flows into the Congo River, the second most powerful river in the world. Only the Amazon River in South America discharges more water into the ocean.
This means that greenhouse farmers in Congo will have easy access to a key ingredient for crops as well as a possible source of clean energy.
Soon, our greenhouses may be growing melons as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and lettuce—and improving food security for the people of Congo.