Ugandans try ‘stack farming’ as arable land disappears


Like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is facing a shortage in arable lands. To help manage the crisis, volunteers are training farmers to not just grow plants in the ground... but also upwards, using 'stacked shelves'.

Between 2005 and 2010, Uganda lost 8,000 square kilometres of farmland due to droughts and soil erosion from over-farming. Small food-producing operations are thus struggling to survive, a situation all the more problematic given that agriculture represents one fifth of the country's economy. According to World Bank reports, small farms make up 80 percent of Ugandan agricultural operations.

The question was asked, if there's nowhere to grow on the ground, why not grow upwards? It all started with volunteers from the NGO Ideas for Uganda, who brought "Vertical and Micro-Gardening" (VMG) to Uganda's suburban areas.


How does it work?

The farm units are built of wood, with a central vermicomposting chamber, where earthworms transform organic waste, which they consume, into natural fertiliser. Water bottles placed above the units collect rainwater to be fed into the soil. Pipes filter the water; irrigation can then be continuous or controlled.

Vertical farms allow for "farming in the air," with wooden units that take up less than a square metre of space. Photo provided by Ideas for Uganda.

As a result, in the space of just one square metre, one can grow what would take three square metres of ground soil, or about 100 plants, according to the project's managers. (Tests have already been conducted with tomatoes and cucumbers.) Such operations use 70 percent less water than standard farms, according to reports from Columbia University.

The vermicomposting chamber is constructed so that the worms can move around and spread fertiliser throughout the VMG unit. Photo provided by Ideas for Uganda.

Fifteen such test-farms have been installed in the districts of Kampala, Wakiso and Mityana. Our Observer hopes to see their number grow to 360 over the next five years, and perhaps spread into neighbouring countries.

These vertical farming units are currently in use in three districts, which are visible on the map, and are helping about 15 farms. The plan is to see install them in about 360 small farm operations in the next five years.

"Farmers can produce four times as much, with methods that are more respectful of the environment"

Paul Matovu is a volunteer and a member of 'Ideas for Uganda', which is behind the project. The NGO is itself a branch of the international NGO Intellectual Decisions on Environmental Awareness and Solutions, based in the United States, which is financing the VGM farms in Uganda.

Agriculture is the backbone of our economy in Uganda. When people are independent [with respect to farming], able to grow their own little business, they can feed their family and improve their living conditions. But there's a paradox: only 39 percent of Ugandans own land where they can farm, because a lot of the land is owned by agribusiness. This [project] is also critical because about a fourth of small farmers are housewives. They need to be able to have their little operations at home, so that they can then sell their produce at market and be economically independent.

According to the project's initiators, seedlings as tall as five metres can be grown using this method, in a minimum of horizontal space. Photo provided by Ideas for Uganda.

I came across these vertical farms in Canada, and I thought the concept was ingenious. Nonetheless, farmers here were a bit sceptical at the outset. Ugandan farmers are stuck in their traditional practices. They do slash and burn farming [Editor's note: In which fields are cleared by fire, which degrades the soil.], they're dependent on the whims of the weather for their water-intensive growing, and they still work around the traditional seasonal calendar instead of taking climate change into account. In addition to being bad for the environment, these practices paralyse these small farmers with low yields that consume lots of resources, just to cover their own food needs.

We've gotten pretty curious responses, with farmers asking us, "Aren't earthworms dangerous?" or "Won't termites eat the wood?" Their questions disappeared quickly wen they saw the results. The first tests show that it's possible to cultivate the production equivalent of 225 euros worth of tomatoes per month, or 180 euros of cucumbers, or about four times more than by using traditional methods. [Editor's note: According to Ideas for Uganda, Ugandan farmers earn an average of 68 euros per month.]

Fifteen farms have already benefited from the initiative, and the NGO hopes to be able to help about 360 within five years. Photo provided by Ideas for Uganda.

What does this project need in order to expand?

Though our Observer firmly believes that "farming in the air" is the solution, a way to give each household its own land, his NGO is not currently able to meet demand.

The project is logistically complicated, because we have to constantly be renting trucks to bring these vertical farming systems to the farms. Then there's the cost of the units, which is still too high for many of the 13 percent of Ugandans who live in urban areas and don't own land. [Editor's note: A VMG unit costs about 160 euros.] We're trying to teach farmers as much as possible so that they can build the units themselves, even if this is quite technical and takes time.

If you want to contact our Observer to learn more about his methods, write to us at or visit our section, "The Observers Take Action”.