“I’ve always wanted to have a company that focuses on the year-round production of healthy food, providing high-quality and free training. The first two trainings we launched gained a lot of traction, given numerous people wanted to follow it. However, we got some weird faces because why would we provide free training if one is willing to pay for it? However, money was an issue for most interested parties, and having people come to our ag sites would be much easier and lower the entry barrier,” says Samson Ogbole, Founder and CEO of Soilless Farm Lab, a Nigerian education center on sustainable agriculture.
Left, Samson Ogbole
Maximizing soilless production
Once Samson entered the world of hydroponics, he set up Soilless Farming Lab, a center that educates individuals on how to maximize production in soilless farming. Sourcing as many local resources as possible, Samson cracked the code and started his journey from there on, building farms in Dubai. SFL has 350 greenhouses of 192sqm minimum, then another greenhouse in another city. Having trained over 14,000 students thus far, another 4,000 are starting a cluster this year to start 80 new companies. Given the farm sites are certified, products are sold to offtakes in the region. Yet, farming is the core focus of SFL.
“When it comes to produce, we stay at a par price, but sometimes they are even. We tried to understand the principles, and when we say greenhouse farming in Europe and Nigeria, we are trying to keep the temperatures up as it’s very cool. You cannot grow in the winter, but in the summer, it’s okay to get the right temperature and light in.”
As Samson explains, Africa remains the place with the most uncultivated land in the world, and in Nigeria, we have plenty of space. “Mind that not all crops can be grown hydroponically, so we only adopt soilless farming in the greenhouses and vertical farms to maximize space. Africans need to ensure that they use technology that doesn’t have to compete with open-field cultivation. We want to create a market for African food. It has to become a standard for quality and add more transparency to the market. People will be able to track their produce and know what’s actually in their food.”
It’s about functionality, not aesthetics
“Here, all that matters is the functionality of the system, not the aesthetics like in Europe. It has to be more of a joint of Africa for the Africans, which lowers costs a lot. Some companies wanted to introduce European greenhouses to Nigeria, which cost around €65-100 per m2. Whereas, locally, we can do it for less than €15, with an additional €2-3 for equipment used inside the greenhouse, using local materials as well,” Samson adds.
That might be because Europe doesn’t have a lot of people interested in farming, meaning that a lot has to become automated. Nigeria, on the other hand, has a body-use population of older people in agriculture. If we’re going to bring next-gen farmers, we cannot make every process automated to create jobs. Samson explains that in Nigeria, they only need a proper functioning system that’s very little automated to keep costs low.
“90% we can easily compete with the open market because the CapEx is not as much that you cannot break even with. However, Investors give it two to three years, and I always tell them we’ll be able to make it.”
Collaboration starts with listening
“When we have people visiting here, I want to make them understand our needs. Don’t do a replica of your technology here, as all the indoor and outdoor elements are different to your country. As well as the buying and purchasing power, which is very low compared to the EU or North America.”
On top of that, there’s a working traditional method for Soilless Farms, which makes it affordable to operate and sell to market. The traditional method isn’t bad at all because it’s knowledge passed on from generation to generation. According to Samson, it’s all about culture and understanding how to feel the need for what exists. “That’s why a lot of companies that moved here tend to fail after four to five years. They are trying to tell them to take out all the knowledge that’s been around and replace it with technology that won’t survive.
“As for seeds, substrate, and low-cost hydroponic systems that can be used within or without greenhouses, most areas in Nigeria can cultivate without nylon or polytunnels as we have a proper climate to keep plants happy. We don’t need a solution that lasts 40-50 years, instead, something that’s able to stand around 10 years so we can test it. It doesn’t have to be a sophisticated greenhouse, just a trial product that won’t ruin the farmer.”
Africa vs. high OpEx countries
If companies would like to start a business in Nigeria, Samson points out, they need to understand that the core job proceeds the technology. In Rome, behave like a Roman. He explains that parties should understand the cohort first. In 2023, Soilless Farm Lab trained 4,000 youngsters for free. All of those trained are Nigerians coming from different parts of the country who all carry a unique, single culture.
“10% of the feedback we get is about the technology. However, the remaining 90% is about the acceptance of being different and unique, which is valued. Anyone who is entering the training has to understand the big differences in learning hydroponics. Yet, for foreigners to establish hydroponics here in Nigeria, you need to learn about the culture first and not have the business model so rigid.”