Everyone has seen those beautiful safari resorts, where elephant, giraffe and lion sightings are an everyday norm. However, in the midst of this rugged landscape and the leisure facilities of one particluar camp, something stands out. In a small, protected area, surrounded by indigenous forest, a number of growing towers are reaching towards the sky.
Ishara welcomed their first guests in March this year. Their location is 262 km or about 5 hours by road from Nairobi, the main city for fresh ingredients and other supplies.
Creating Their Own Food Basket
“It had been a dream to add a tower farm to our property,” says Zahra Madhani, Co-Founder of Ishara. “As I’ve always had an appetite for farming, I’ve grown vegetables in my own back garden for years,“ she says. “I was interested in learning more about sustainable farming and when I came across the tower farm concept at a conference in Amsterdam, I arranged to set up some aeroponic towers at home to give it a try. That resulted in some fruitful yields, so soon, we set up a 120 square metre tower farm at our family’s Ishara property that was in the making in the Mara,” she adds.
Ever since Zahra and her son, Azhar, introduced the tower farms to the resort, barely any fresh produce has been bought from elsewhere. At this point, 36 towers are installed, with 44 pods each. This gives them the capacity to grow about 1,584 plants per month. Ishara’s chefs harvest tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, celery, herbs, edible flowers and more, and Zahra proudly shares that the farm yields about 200kg on average per month, even though they are only planting as much as they can currently use. She is excited that the quality of the greens are perfectly suited for the flavoursome dishes they serve, and Azhar is conscious that it has also reduced the camp’s carbon footprint as well.
“As part of the property tour, guests can visit our tower farm, pick their own vegetables and have our chefs prepare a salad or a dish for them to enjoy,” Zahra affirms.
Sharing Knowledge About Sustainable Farming
The ‘Shamba (garden) of Goodness’ as it is known is solar-powered and utilises harvested rainwater. It uses less water than traditional farming, ensures minimal land degradation, and does not affect the indigenous biodiversity of the flora native to the ecosystem. Not only does it provide fresh ingredients for Ishara’s kitchen, it also serves as an educational tool for guests who are always fascinated by the technology behind it and keen to see how it can be implemented in their own settings wherever they are from.
In order to keep the crops safe from wild animals, a net has been put around the shamba. “It doesn’t hold off the hippos and elephants,” Zahra says, laughing, “but it does keep the baboons away to a certain extent.”
A Self-Sustaining Resort
“As we’re located in the heart of a National Reserve, Ishara has always been committed to preserving the natural biodiversity of our ecosystem without any interference,” Azhar says. “The aeroponic tower farms perfectly align with our vision,” he adds.
Azhar explains that Ishara is off-grid and has invested in a 110KW solar-cultivating energy farm to generate renewable electricity. A biogas digesting system also turns food waste into usable cooking energy, used for things like boiling water for hot water bottles for game drives and guest suites. An extensive rainwater harvesting system is capable of collecting up to 150,000 litres of fresh rainwater. Coupled with a water filtration plant, this supply caters to the hydro needs of the entire camp. Once the water is utilised, a Waste Water Treatment Plant ensures that the waste can be reused safely for landscaping irrigation, outside cleaning, washing of vehicles, and re-flushing of the toilets.
Zahra emphasises the importance of eco-consciousness at the camp and that it is incorporated into every aspect of Ishara. “Guests sometimes question the sustainability aspect of the camp because of our extraordinary levels of luxury. But after explaining how we work, they can enjoy their bubble bath or long, hot outdoor shower in peace, knowing it is sourced from rainwater,” Zahra explains, smiling.
Creating Impact Beyond the Mara
Since tower farms are quite a novel concept, Ishara has been receiving numerous requests from schools, hospitals, restaurants and others for guidance on how to create them. “With the right partners, we want to eventually share our expertise with these institutions as this has the potential to create significant impact. Reducing our reliance on land, creating food baskets at a micro-institutional level and within crowded cities, and finding more sustainable ways to meet our planet’s increasing food requirements are key. We are extremely excited that Ishara has been a pioneer for vertical farming in Kenya,” she concludes.
Photo credits: Mary Beth Koeth, Eric Averdung, Samy Ghannam, Altaf Jiwa