Teaching the world about hydroponics…well, maybe just the baguio first!

Lissa was one of our Balloon Fellow volunteers, working in the Philippines to help build businesses and change lives. Here, she writes about her experience working with Maria, who has some bright ideas about small-scale sustainable agriculture.

“Hydroponics…” said Maria, our quiet, reserved, single mother of two, wannabe entrepreneur.  “Hydro-what?” replied my team fellows who were both looking on perplexed.

“Wow”, I thought, this is going to be an interesting challenge.  I vaguely remember my mother mentioning a distant cousin (perhaps once removed) who used to grow tomatoes hydroponically in Ickenham sometime in the 1970s; from all accounts she didn’t rate the taste of the fruit that they grew. What hope did we have?

Leaving all that aside, we questioned Maria further to try and understand where her idea had come from and how she was hoping her business idea would develop.  In a nutshell, the main idea was to sell low cost Hydroponic kits to housewives, senior citizens and unemployed youth to give them a relatively cheap and easy hobby and in turn provide them with a feeling of self-worth (well that was the aim).  As the idea developed it included creating a network of Hydroponic growers who would then sell their produce to market stalls and help them generate a small income.  The main problem was that all the kits that were currently available in the Philippines were imported and very expensive to this market segment.

Where to begin?  We had no idea if there was even a demand for new hobbies let alone one as niche as small scale gardening with no soil!

At this point, you may be wondering how hydroponics works, so a brief introduction into hydroponics, which has come on leaps and bounds since the 70s, is probably in order.

According to Google, the definition of hydroponics is ‘the process of growing plants in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil’.  Sounds pretty straightforward, right?

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How hydroponics works (source: agnet.org)

For our next meeting we arranged to meet Maria on the busy Magssaysay Street, which is often clogged with taxis, cars and jeepneys ferrying people between Baguio and La Trinidad.  We were here to locate a shop that apparently sold hydroponic equipment.  After locating the rather drab grey looking building we were led up and up and up until we came to a very non-descript door. We went through the door and after walking along a dark corridor we came out onto a bright, sunny roof terrace with leafy green plants everywhere, every surface that could be used as a ledge had pots on it as did the walls which were lined with wire to hold the plants.  Growing out of every type of vessel imaginable – a popular one being half coke bottles – were strawberry plants, tomatoes, squash and lettuces.

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Consulting Lito, the expert, in his “roof jungle”

We spent a pleasant hour or so chatting to the owner of the roof jungle, Lito. It turned out that this was not in fact a shop but an R&D centre for a company in Manila.  Although Lito occasionally supplied local enthusiasts with hydroponic equipment and supplies, it was not their main source of income – ‘great news’, we thought.

This visit was really helpful for Maria. We could see already that she was growing more and more confident about her idea.  It also helped to validate the main reason why Maria had wanted to pursue a business in hydroponics, as she believed that the current kits that were available locally were too expensive and meant that a large part of the local population could not feasibly start growing plants hydroponically.

Following this trip we decided that the first thing to focus on was to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to see if the kits that Maria wanted to supply would actually work.  Maria supplied us with some empty egg cartons, ice cream boxes, plastic cups, two different growth substrates and some seeds to grow.  I have to admit I did not expect to be doing much gardening whilst here in the Philippines, but we set about growing our seeds in the egg boxes and 10 days later they were ready to be transplanted into the plastic cups and popped into the ice cream boxes (see pictures). As of today all of our little plants are still alive and we are just waiting for the solution to do its work.

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Setting up the DIY Hydroponic Kit

As we were testing whether the product would work, the next problem to solve was how Maria would reach her intended customers.  ‘Seminars’, she told us, ‘I’m going to hold seminars in all the Barangay halls, to teach people about hydroponics and why they should start growing their fruit and veg in this way.’  ‘Great,’ we thought, ‘sounds easy enough!’  A barangay is like a barrio, it’s the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, and Baguio has about 129.  Each barangay has a hall where meetings can be held.  So Maria set about making a list of all the barangays in Baguio and looked into ways of arranging a meeting with each one.  In addition, she came up with the excellent idea of contacting the Girl Scout organisation to see if they would be interested in her delivering sessions with the 10,000 Girl Scouts based in Baguio.

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Maria holding a trial seminar with a local bible reading group.

Maria’s delivery channel, rather like Avon, was to hold meetings with groups of interested people in each Barangay and show them how to set up the kits that Maria would sell, or show them how to source their own kits, and help them to create their own hydroponic gardens.  Maria would supply the groups with the substrate (growing medium), the nutrient solution (she planned to use SNAP which is a nutrient based solution that has been developed in the Philippines by the University of Los Baños) and seeds and set them on their way to developing hydroponically green fingers.

So as we prepared to leave the Philippines at the end of our Fellowship, Maria had a full calendar of seminars booked in with each barangay in Baguio as well as a couple of sessions with some of the Girl Scout brigades.  She was just waiting to receive her first order of SNAP solution.  The solution is the key to growing plants hydroponically and the one developed in the Philippines is significantly cheaper than the imported varieties currently available.  With her seminars all planned out Maria hopes to develop a cohort of avid hydroponic gardeners to whom she can supply affordable hydroponic equipment and supplies.

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Examples of Maria’s final product range, SNAP Soution, DIY kits, and growing Coco Coir.

If you think you have what it takes to get involved with Balloon Ventures, you should consider becoming a volunteer with Balloon ICS – a life-changing volunteering opportunity, funded by the UK Government and led by VSO.

We have volunteer placements available for people aged 18-35, departing in January, February 2017. Click here or visit ballonics.org for more information, and to apply.