With three hectares under plastic and net Farm Shalom in the Swakop River Valley yields 40 tonnes of fresh produce every month in Namibia’s unforgiving desert environment.
From cold, wet and misty conditions to dusty, hot eastwinds that can drive the mercury up to almost 50 degrees Celsius, extremes are common.
There is hardly any rain, the soil is dusty and salty, and the groundwater available is too brackish for agricultural activities.
“The weather and environment is our biggest challenge. It can become a real problem for our plants’ growth. This is why we need appropriate infrastructure and technology, as well as continuous research,” says Farm Shalom’s farm manager, Ruben Shikulo.
“But we believe if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere,” he says.
Shikulo has been at Farm Shalom for the past 14 years. He left Omusati for Swakopmund after completing Grade 10.
“I came to stay with my brother, hoping to get work. I did not have any skills,” he says.
In 2007 the former owners of Shalom hired some general workers to help with a fairly small operation comprising olive trees, two greenhouse tunnels and one shade house for vegetables.
Farm Shalom produced fresh olives, olive oil and fresh produce for neighbours, and some for the local market at Swakopmund.
It also served as a venue for a weekly farmers’ market.
“I did some general work, cleaning the area, preparing the land and watering, pruning and picking the vegetables,” Ruben says.
“I was then taught to press olives for oil, develop nurseries and prepare fertiliser.”
Thanks to his hard work and learning a lot about agriculture, Shikulo was ready for Farm Shalom’s transformation in 2014 when the former owners sold the land to Dr Vikram Naik, who, being a medical doctor, wanted to become a local producer of healthy food in the desert.
By this time, Shikulo had sufficient skills to help expand Farm Shalom, AvaGro’s flagship project in Namibia, which has grown to one of the largest hydroponics operations in the country.
The farm now consists of 34 plastic greenhouse tunnels and two hectares of shade net for a variety of vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, chillies, cucumbers, asparagus, beetroot and spinach, as well as flowers.
The operation is still growing.
According to Shikulo, over 40 people work at AvaGro, whom he helped to train, while also being given the responsibility of being the farm’s manager.
“This is one of our greatest successes. Forty Namibians who had no experience are now working on a project that is already providing food to the coast, and which has plans to expand into Namibia and the region,” he said.
AvaGro also has partnerships with the University of Namibia and the Namibia University of Science and Technology, which allow students to train at Farm Shalom and put their knowledge into practice.
As research sheds more light on understanding the environment and crops, AvaGro is adapting and evolving its operations, benefiting more and more from appropriate technology.
Shikulo says the farm also has its own desalination plant which helps to desalt the brackish water, making it more suitable for plants.
Besides that, AvaGro recently installed an automised irrigation system at Farm Shalom.
This allows precise water and nutrient application. A specialsed lab for the research of crop development in the desert environment is also in the pipeline.
AvaGro’s chief executive officer, Leonie Hartmann, says the company is already working with other agricultural projects in Namibia for the development of the industry, as they share the same vision of turning Namibia into an independent producer of fresh products.
“We are doing our small part in making our desert bloom,” she says.