DIVAGRI Phd Student Mhlengi Khambule from Stellenbosch University shares his insights on the benefits of desalination greenhouses for small farmers in Africa.

Why is a desalination greenhouse important technology for small farmers in Africa?

With increasingly salinized and unproductive water and land resources solar desalinisation greenhouses can safeguard the livelihoods of producers with these uncertain production conditions.

What, in your opinion, are the benefits of desalination greenhouses for small farmers in Africa?

For early adopting farmers, this could mean making use of water resources that are typically unproductive and it could considerably decrease the water bill. The system can also allow for an extended production period when the heated water is used to warm crop beds when night temperatures begin to drop. These are both essential benefits in production cost reduction and market differentiation.

Where is this technology best applied and why?

The technology has been well documented in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA)regions. Here, the technology has really showcased its ability to maximise solar energy. In our case we adapted the system to increase the productivity of the water by incorporating an aquaponics component.

This not only demonstrates the flexibility of the system since we do not receive the same amount of energy as MENA regions, but also combines a powerful technology that can further diversify producer production and income. Hopefully in combination this will increasingly attract more producers to use regenerative systems and approaches. 

Mhlengi Khambule
Is a desalination greenhouse too costly for small farmers to set up in Africa?

Transitioning or adopting new technologies means an additional cost for small scale farmers. Demonstrating the context specific applications and benefits of desalination greenhouses as well as innovating financing schemes can help in the adoption of the technology. 

Why did you choose this technology to research?

After completing my Masters in Genetics, I realised that if you combined plant breeding with alternative water resources you could ensure continued food crop production under drought conditions. When I heard about the prospect of working with desalination greenhouses, I knew I should take the opportunity because it linked perfectly with my perspectives on climate smart agriculture.

How do you think your research on desalination greenhouses can contribute to the future of small farming in Africa?

We need to continuously reimagine and improve how we produce food. Pests, diseases and environmental extremes are persistent hurdles that are likely to intensify with climate change. Incorporating new food production technologies to complement local knowledge and conditions can only help build resilient communities. My research truly contributes to such an effort and can further be modified for more context-specific applications.

Why did you decide to study plant biotechnology?

I wanted to broaden my skillset and become a more impactful researcher and practitioner in a challenged South African agricultural food system.

How are you going to use this research to further your career?

This research will enhance my knowledge and contribution towards sustainable intensification of crop production through regenerative and technology-based approaches. More holistically this exposure develops my interest and intended impact area – the intersection of sustainable food systems, education (capacity building) and entrepreneurship.

How can the DIVAGRI project help to promote desalination greenhouses among small farmers?

We need to link technologies to farmer needs. Technologies need to be relevant and solve lived challenges. Being comfortable to co-iterate and co-develop technologies with farmers can help enhance technology transfer and adoption.