Sep 2022 Interview with Leonie Hartmann, Co-Founder and CEO, AvaGro
Prisma Reports (PR): AvaGro is a pioneering and innovative agricultural solutions company with a mission to transform traditional farming in Namibia and Africa into precision farming. When was the proverbial AvaGro seed planted and how has it developed?
Leonie Hartmann (LH): To overcome the challenges of food security, in 2014 we established a farm in the Namib Desert and pioneered hydroponics cultivation in the country. AvaGro has grown from strength to strength and we now have 3 hectares of greenhouses in which we grow a variety of crops. We started with typical greenhouse crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and have diversified into more specialized crops like flowers and herbs.
Initially, we operated as a family small holding — it was only in 2019 that AvaGro launched with a wider vision to take the learnings from the harshest climatic conditions of Namibia into the region. We like to say that “if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere,” because farming in a very arid climate is challenging for various reasons.
We have three seasons a day, which is difficult for the plants to combat. Access to clean water is also needed, which involves desalinating water through reverse osmosis and we need 100 cubic meters of water a day to irrigate our greenhouses. As water is such a scarce resource, we drip irrigate all the crops through pressure compensated driplines. A grow medium that we import from Sri Lanka must be used, because the desert is too salty for the crops and would burn their roots. This medium is a cocopeat substrate that is made from the husks of coconuts. While some crops like asparagus can survive in the desert sand, hydroponics — or soil-less cultivation — needs this special medium, which we can use for several cycles.
The driplines go through the cocopeat bags, allowing us to adjust the nutrient recipe that the plants need. We’re very precise with our methods regarding irrigation and nutrient composition for the plants, and we fine tune these depending on changing weather conditions, which can range from very humid at night to super dry in the day. During a desert storm, humidity can plummet from 90% to 20% and the average humidity for plants would ideally be around 65%. Also, the temperatures fluctuate drastically during “East Wind” times. We’ve once measured over 50 degrees in the greenhouse, which is too hot for the plants and, as a result, we needed technology to combat that. Through our learnings, we recognized that we could be a horticultural producer and a key player in the region when it comes to farming in challenging climatic conditions. We saw that our learnings could benefit other growers and have, therefore, started to supply appropriate technology as part of our turnkey offering.
AvaGro’s flagship project in the Namib Desert is also called our laboratory — that’s where we started everything and trialed over 40 different crops to determine how we can optimize them. But we’ve now expanded into the region in countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia and Eswatini, allowing us to take our learnings even further.
AvaGro is not just a horticultural producer. We also like to train young up-and-coming agri-preneurs who haven’t had the chance to apply their knowledge practically. We work closely with the Namibian Training Authority on vocational education training, which is a hands-on approach to learning — we’ve just revised the whole syllabus for agriculture and will be the first accredited training provider for hydroponics in Namibia. Young learners can enroll and experience what precision agriculture means. As part of our services, we also help other projects to set up greenhouse and irrigation solutions, and ensure they have the necessary skills to make their project a success.
The mission is really to have more horticultural producers in Namibia to leverage the market, because we’re currently a net importer of vegetables and fruits. Namibia is traditionally more of an animal-husbandry country and horticulture is still a new field. We’ve been exporting meat extensively to the U.S. and Europe, but not yet horticultural crops. Therefore, AvaGro is very proud to be the first Namibian exporter of tomatoes to South Africa, which was only achievable with a critical mass of farmers and produce, so that we can have a rich product basket.
PR: What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced on you journey and how did you manage to turn these into opportunities?
LH: Firstly, financing is always a critical aspect and difficult to secure, especially development finance or what we call “patient capital”. Agriculture is a risky industry because one can’t foresee all the climatic challenges in the season. For example, last year, it was a historically cold winter. We haven’t had temperatures like that for over 30 years and you need the right technology to tackle that. The banks need a return on investment in three to five years and, therefore, see this industry as a risk because agriculture is a long-term investment. Some of our crops that are not grown in the greenhouse — like the climate-smart Kiri Tree for the production of sustainable timber — require about five years until their first harvest. That means a loan must include working capital for over five years before the first returns can be harvested.
While banks were very hesitant, we were able to secure some funding to expand through the environmental investment fund from the French development agency last year. We have the necessary knowledge and skills, and have put systems and procedures in place to expand. Even the off-take markets are there. However, despite the critical experience being in place, issues around collateral are always inhibiting, as one needs 100% security to borrow from the bank, which is not easy if you’re not a landowner or borrow against a big balance sheet.
Secondly, land is critical. There are many challenges around land ownership and possible lease agreements. It’s a long process and hence acquiring new land is difficult. For us, a public-private partnership model would make a suitable option. Especially in Namibia, we have government green schemes with lots of potential.
PR: Is vertical farming an appropriate technology for Africa?
LH: Vertical farming is usually prominent in an urban context, because you will achieve more output per square meter. In Namibia, it’s not space that is so much of a constraint but the suitability of the soil and water for cultivation. Vertical farming is one of the main methods deployed at our flagship AvaGro Farm in Namibia. The seeds that we buy are indeterminant and can continue to grow as we trellis them vertically — whereas in the field, the seeds are usually determinant. This means that the size of the plant is fixed at a certain height.
Vertical farming also usually happens in a controlled environment like in a greenhouse, which offers more protection from external factors or pests, and that results in a higher, more predictable yield. Less than 5% of our crops can’t be sold and this percentage would be a lot higher in an open-field setting.
PR: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Africa is sometimes referred to as the future breadbasket of the world, with the fastest-growing population. What are your thoughts about Africa’s future when it comes to food security and sustainable agriculture?
LH: I believe we have all the local resources available to be a powerhouse for year-round production and hence support the region and global north with their food requirements. The number-one priority is our own food security but, because we’re not constrained by seasons, our supply is continuous. Since we can supply during the winter months of the global north, we can become the so-called “global breadbasket”.
Africa is always portrayed as a dry continent with very arid soils where nothing can be cultivated — but over the last five years, I’ve had the privilege to travel and sample many of its different soils. Africa has some of the most nutritious soils that are uncontaminated by pollutants, unlike those in other parts of the world. You can grow very clean and organic foods here.
While it doesn’t rain at the coast in Namibia, many other parts of the country receive rain during the summer months and also benefit from rich aquafers under the soil, which are suitable for irrigation with the right technology. We have to be very mindful of the fact that water and soil are our most precious and scarce resources, especially as Africa is the continent most significantly affected by climate change, with 131 climate-related extreme weather events recorded in just the past two years.
While land and water are the two most important ingredients for a successful agricultural operation, we must also invest in capacity building and training. Appropriate knowhow must be provided that is relevant to the context we’re working in. Skill enhancement is a focus for AvaGro. We learn and grow from the inside out, by Namibians for Namibians.
PR: How is AvaGro working with international partners to help achieve SDG 2?
LH: As the African proverb says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together.” We seek like-minded partners to establish a network that can facilitate fundraising, knowledge sharing, education and training, technology transfer and cooperatation on production, marketing and off take. Our collaborations encompass entities and representatives from government, international development, science and academia, researchers, retailers and communities in Namibia and southern Africa more broadly.
We’ve benefited from support from the French Development Agency AFD, which continuously invests in sustainable development on the continent. Through AFD, it was possible to expand our operation by 100% and hence grow more food for the local economy. Also SATIHUB, a USAID-financed trade hub in the region, has supported our growth over the years. We’re working closely with United Nations World Food Program in Namibia on the integration of small-scale farmers into the supply chain by funding training, input supplies and access to markets. AvaGro has a training program for these farmers and provides clean plant material in form of seedlings and other necessary agro-support to help them grow staple foods such as beans and potatoes for local consumption.
PR: As a signatory of the Paris Agreement, Namibia’s net-zero ambitions are backed by strong commitment from both the government and the private sector. The country is set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 92% by the end of the decade and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. What are your own views on Namibia’s path to net zero and how would you characterize the role of sustainable farming in achieving its decarbonization goals?
LH: It’s definitely possible to reach these goals and it’s a strong focus of our operation. We’re putting a lot of resources behind a wonderful project with our strategic partners in Germany, which have developed hybrids of the fastest-growing tree on the planet: Paulownia, commonly known as the Kiri Tree. This ultralight and ultra fast-growing climate-smart tree is already known in Europe, with environmental credentials that derive from four elements. Firstly, it has low water requirements — hectare-for-hectare, it needs 20% of the water maize requires. It also has a high capacity to absorb carbon dioxide at 40 metric tons per hectare per year compared to the Amazon rainforest’s 15 metric tons. It has low flammability as well, which is a major consideration in relatively dry climates as global temperatures rise. Additionally, and very importantly for African food security, its protein-rich leaves can be used for animal fodder.
Our first hundred Kiri seedlings were a donation from German agricultural engineering company WeGrow and were planted in 2021 in extremely dry conditions at our flagship AvaGro Farm in Namibia. We’re now planting several hundred hectares of it here in Namibia and in the region to help prevent further deforestation and to harness the trees’ capacity to produce oxygen to engage in the carbon-credit market
Even in far-from-ideal conditions like in Swakopmund, the trees grew more than 3 meters in less than a year and it’s easy to see that a height of 5 meters could be attained in year one in a more favorable environment. AvaGro plans to provide southern African out-growers with plant material and conclude off-take agreements with them. The intention is to export the timber from the port of Walvis Bay.
In Eswatini, AvaGro has been granted import permits for Kiri and is planting an initial 10 hectares. The plan is to expand to larger holdings in this country, which has a strong forestry and timber production tradition. In Zimbabwe, where the tropical climate is ideal, a 130-hectare Kiri plantation is being established with a dedicated nursery to supply regional out-growers.
A carbon-trading framework has not yet been established in the region, but we’re working with local financial institutions to create a modal that allows us to become the lungs for the global north through our carbon neutrality. Sustainable farming further assists in decarbonization due to a focus on food sovereignty and sufficient local supply. Thanks to improved technologies and precision-agriculture methods, we don’t rely as much anymore on long-distance imports, we can eat more and harvest more of the locally grown and available produce.
PR: In your experience, how are technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), big data, automation and cloud computing tackling the effects of climate change on agriculture?
LH: That’s a very important topic. When I was in Israel at a big agricultural show, I experienced AI for the first time with sensors being placed by every single plant, which measured everything from sun penetration, to water consumption, to fertilizer intake. From there, one could build a whole memory of a certain plant and thereby optimize its output.
However, we haven’t yet reached the stage of big data and AI in horticulture in Namibia. It’s still early stages, where local access to these technologies is gradually improving. From what I’ve seen, there’s not yet a very strong culture in data recording, handling and analytics, which is an important step before we move into the sphere of AI. It was one of our biggest challenges in our activities on the coast, because we had no references to compare how the climate has changed over the past thirty years. We had to start with data loggers ourselves in a very manual way to record differences in the seasons.
However, going forward we’re very keen to integrate more AI and blockchain into our operations, especially to work with changing weather patterns and plant performances in the greenhouse and open-field plantations. For example, how differences in UV penetration or humidity affect the photosynthesis and growth of our plants, the nutrient needs of our plants and the effect of rainfall patterns on the design of our irrigation setups. Through AI, we would like to also become more precise in potential disease diagnosis and hence be able to apply intelligent spraying methods. Overall, we would be able to respond more appropriately to the effects of climate change on our production with AI.
PR: How would you rate Namibia as a destination for investors in sustainable innovation?
LH: I believe Namibia is a hidden secret. There are so many opportunities here, the country is very open to new ideas and investments, and it has a sustainable approach to development that takes into consideration the economies of development, as well as the environmental and social impacts that new projects have. Since AvoGro was established, we’ve experienced strong support from all levels in the government and the private sector to make our projects a success.