Auto-pot farming: a revolutionary technique
“I was sceptical at first. I did not believe that farming could be done in a greenhouse, with creeper plants such as sweet melon grown vertically on a rope,” explains Mohamed ‘Waddey’ Waheed, 43, of Seenu Atoll Meedhoo. Waddey is a beneficiary of the auto-pot farm established under UNDP’s Support to Integrated Farming project. “After we completed the initial training, we were surprised. I have to say it revolutionized farming in the island”.
In Meedhoo, the production started in March 2011, steered by the local NGO Meedhoo Ekuveringe Cheynu (MEC). MEC is comprised mostly of women, with its main objective being the economic empowerment of women. The melons produced in the auto-pot farm are sold to Addu Meedhoo Cooperative Society (AMCS), who in turn supplies to nearby resorts – most prominently Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa.
“The NGO does not directly sell the produce to the resorts because we want to focus solely on the production side,” says Mariyam ‘Mandhaa’ Zuhair, 42, who is one of the four current employs of the farm. “It also gives other farmers in the island a platform to sell their produce. If it was MEC who was in contact with the resorts directly, we will only be selling our own produce. However with AMCS specializing in the sales operation, they not only buy produce from us, but from the other farmers in the island as well.”
MEC initially started the auto-pot farm with 35 employs, mostly women. That number was eventually reduced to four, in order to make the operation more economically viable. However, since all 35 start-up employs were trained on auto-pot techniques, they were able to replicate some aspects of the operation – such as self-pollination – at their own backyards and produce sweet melon, which they sold through AMCS. “Some of these farmers have sold even 100 kilograms of melon in one harvest, just by growing them in their backyards,” exclaims Waddey. “This is what I mean when I say it was revolutionary. The techniques can be replicated easily, melons fetch the highest price per kilogram and there is a guaranteed market. While the auto-pot project was set up through MEC, it has indirectly benefited many members of the community”
“I have started growing sweet melon myself in a greenhouse as well,” says Waddey. “The only difference is that unlike auto-pot melons that are grown in water, I grow mine in soil, which of course requires more time and care. Eventually, I hope to be able to afford the complete auto-pot system.”
Mandhaa reports that she too has started her own farm, where she grows a number of fruits and vegetables in addition to sweet melon. “With the link created between AMCS and Shangri-La, there is a clear market for agricultural produce now, which is what I am capitalizing on. This link has also allowed me to venture into a related market, whereby I supply flower bouquets to the resort. In addition to the salary I get from working at the auto-pot farm, I manage to make between 5000 and 6000 Rufiyaa every month through my own work.” It is not just MEC or the melon farmers that are benefiting from the auto-pot project. Shangri-La has taken a special interest in the auto-pot farm, and arranged for their guests to do excursion trips to Meedhoo to visit the farm. “Even though the tourists are coming to see the farm, it also means that while they are in the island, they will spend money at local shops and restaurants, creating a whole new market for the local businessmen,” explains Mandhaa. “In addition to that, auto-pot farming has created a platform for networking with the resorts. Through links established to Shangri-La for example, MEC was recently able to get funding from them to renovate its headquarters, and make a public library.”
In other parts of the country where the auto-pot systems were established, some projects have been stalled, while others are continuing with varying degrees of success. In Gaaf Alif Kon’dey, the project is continuing, with a local business buying the produce from the implementing NGO, who in turn supplies them to resorts and other markets. In Haa Alif Baarah and Filladhoo, the projects are not running at the moment. The reasons for discontinuation include the lack of experience of the beneficiaries on the business-side of the operation and internal mismanagement within the beneficiary NGOs and cooperative societies. However, there are indications that production could soon be picked up in some of the islands where the production has stopped. For example, a prominent Male’-based business – Seagull Foods – is currently in negotiation with the beneficiaries of the Filladhoo project to restart production.
In Meedhoo, the next step for the beneficiaries is further expansion. “With the production capacity we have now, there is a 15 to 20 day gap in harvest, so this is certainly something we can look into improving,” says Mandhaa. “There is no shortage of demand and it will only increase as more resorts are established in the area. When MEC saves enough, we can try and get a new farmhouse with an auto-pot system. We will not have to put in additional labour costs even with a new farm and so we can increase our earnings this way.”
The Meedhoo auto-pot project is at a stage where it has become self-sufficient, and this is what the projects in other locations should aspire to as well. With proper market linkages, and the support of the government, donor agencies and local businesses, MEC is proof that the auto-pot project can benefit not only the direct beneficiaries of the project, but also the communities at large.