Megan Detrie
Tue, 07/02/2012 – 22:41

On a small rooftop in a residential building in Maadi, Sherif Hosny has swapped satellite dishes for hydroponics to grow crops using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil. And he hopes to soon do the same to rooftops in surrounding lower-income areas.

The name of this micro-agriculture initiative, “Schaduf,” refers to a simple tool composed of a long suspended pole maintained by a weight at one end and equipped with a bucket attached at the other to lift water.

Hosny and his brother Tarek launched Schaduf in September to create a second source of income for low-earning families through micro-urban gardens. The company plans to install hydroponic growing systems on roofs in the poorer neighborhoods surrounding Maadi.

Schaduf will provide the newly appointed urban farmers with technical training and cheap supplies. Hydroponic systems fertilize plants with mineral nutrient solutions and the water used for irrigation is recycled. The plants are grown through “vertical farming,” where a single irrigation line feeds feeds multiple shelves of produce.

Soil-less agriculture systems use water that is recycled through a closed irrigation system and thus cut water and pesticide usage to near zero, lowering growing costs and creating healthier food. On the test site in Maadi, Hosny is growing lettuce, chicory and herbs. He believes it’s possible to fit up to 75 heads of lettuce on a square meter of shelving, but says they are still determining the optimal space needed between plants.

All of the products used from the wooden frames, the perelite (a soil conditioner), the peat moss to the tarps are locally manufactured. Schaduf has already received enough donations to set up three rooftop farms and is working with local NGOs to find families who are interested and have the appropriate amount of space.

“Maadi is separated by a single street from neighborhoods with narrow streets, dirt roads and lots of alleys, and there’s a real interest in those areas for people looking for more income,” Hosny said.

A system can cost anywhere from LE7000 to LE15000, an investment that low-income families can’t afford. Urban farmers will receive the system and training for free, and will eventually repay the loan through a small portion of their monthly produce sales.

Hosny estimates that it will take around a year to repay the set-up loan. That money will then be used to handle installation costs for a rooftop farm in another building. Hosny, who has a background in engineering and an MBA, quit his job in Dubai and spent months working on an organic farm in the US. It was there he got the idea for Schaduf.

“I was just taken with it,” he said, adding that he returned to Egypt wanting to use agriculture to help lift families above the poverty line.

Eventually, Schaduf aims to set up a small farmers market at a neighborhood sporting club where the urban farmers can sell their “made in Maadi” produce.

“It’s not a sole income, but an additional income,” said Hosny, adding “LE300 to LE500 extra a month is a sum of money for a lot of people.”

On the test site in Maadi, Hosny is also experimenting with aquaponics, a sustainable food production system that combines aquaculture with hydroponics in a symbiotic environment.

He will raise tilapia — freshwater fish — in tanks below the shelves, and use the fish to add nutrients to water. Aquaponics can provide families with an additional source of protein from the fish. The system is simple. Fish live in tanks below the vertical shelves and are fed cheap food pellets. Water is pumped through their tanks, filtered and then pumped back into the irrigation tubes.

So far, Hosny says the biggest challenge has been keeping the fish alive during Cairo’s unusually cold winter. But, they are experimenting with low-tech heating devices that rely on tinfoil reflecting light to heat the water. For now, though, Hosny says it’s likely Schaduf willfocus on hydroponic systems.

The advantages of rooftop gardening are huge, according to Osama al-Beheiry, a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Ain Shams University: Rooftop gardens create shade, lower amounts of carbon dioxide in the air and provide green space in a densely packed urban environment.

Beheiry began working on rooftop gardens in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture over a decade ago. With two established centers on the university campus and in the ministry devoted to offering advice and wholesale supplies to aspiring urban farmers, Beheiry says the idea is gaining momentum.

“Things quieted down for a while after the revolution, but in the last two to three months, people have become interested again,” said Beheiry.

Schaduf hopes to have the first set of hydroponic systems installed for three families by April and to double that number by the end of summer.

For Hosny, there is little reason to hesitate. Worries over exposure to urban pollution are misguided, he says, adding that many rural farms tend to be near heavily trafficked motorways.

“Trees in the neighborhood may filter out some of the pollution sediments before they reach roofs, and the plants create CO2, pulling pollution out of the air,” he says adding that if rooftop planting takes off in mass “it could have a big impact on Cairo air.”