More frequent and long-lived droughts. Global warming. Water scarcity. Higher input costs. These are some of the factors driving the growing interest in new technology that enables a farmer to produce the same quality and yields as conventional farming, but using indoor farming systems instead.
Hydroponics, or indoor soilless cultivation, as Urban Cultivation International (UCI) calls it, is a method of growing plants in a water-based, mineral- and nutrient-rich solution instead of soil, and under artificial LED lights instead of sunshine.
According to Juan-Griffith Pollard, the CEO of UCI, indoor farming uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming practices, and far less space. In addition, plants can be grown pesticide-free and closer to high-consumption areas, such as densely populated cities. These reasons, and more, explain why an increasing number of growers have begun exploring indoor soilless cultivation.
The system provides the optimal growing conditions for plants, enabling them to develop much faster and be far healthier than is the case with traditional outdoor cultivation.
According to Pollard, the evolution of new technology, such as LED grow lighting and the Internet of Things (IoT), has complemented the development of indoor soilless cultivation systems.
“IoT can be used to automate and regulate indoor farming by monitoring water levels, nutrient levels, pH levels, and temperature and light requirements of plants.
“A farmer can be in control of the harvest at all times, wherever he or she is physically present.
“One of the biggest benefits of indoor farming is that produce can be farmed at any time of the year. Thus, a farmer can sell produce at out of season prices, and supermarkets can stock fresh local produce all year around,” says Pollard.
Pollard started investigating various methods of indoor soilless cultivation in 2016 and fine-tuned them in 2019 to create a healthy, productive indoor farming system.
An entrepreneur by nature, he took note of the various challenges in traditional South African agriculture, including water scarcity and security risks. He also noticed the demand for certain leafy greens and microgreens in cities. Thereafter, he travelled to the US, Europe, and Asia to research systems that could be applied in the South African agricultural environment.
He went on to establish UCI at the N4 Gateway Industrial Park in Pretoria East.
“What makes UCI’s technology different from most other indoor systems is that a farmer can start small and expand by adding additional racks to the system. So there’s no need to commit to a huge capital investment to get started,” Pollard explains.
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