Agricultural practices are ingrained in the traditional Maldivian lifestyle. However, Mohamed Shafeegu – Director of Seagull Maldives – argues that with space at a premium and most foods imported, the art of agriculture is at risk of being lost forever.
“They will forget,” warns Shafeegu, “before they know what to do, food security will be a big problem – it will come.”
The answer to a sustainable farming future, according to Shafeegu, is hydroponics.
Hydroponics is a branch of horticulture which uses water to deliver minerals and nutrients to plants rather than soil – allowing farmers to grow crops in places where soil is arid or unyielding.
“I think hydroponics is our future. The demand [for food] will increase with tourism, so there is a big future for agriculture. If we can plan, we can do this.”
Seagull currently operates one of the Maldives’ few farming and fishing operations on Mafaahi island – the produce of which is used to stock their cafe and supermarket in the capital Malé.
The company grows a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as making boats, keeping goats, and fishing. According to Shafeegu, this is one of only two islands that are carrying out an agricultural project of this scale.
“They said ‘nobody can do this’ – so we tried to do it”
With space at a premium, and much of the land barely arable, the Maldives is a challenging place to grow food. Currently the Maldives imports the majority- an estimated 90% – of its food from neighbouring countries.
The company’s project on Mafaahi it one of the only businesses to be growing its own food – and with 41 different varieties of fruits and vegetables the operation seems to be a success.
The key to the fruitful harvest, according to Shafeegu, is a hydroponics model which they brought from Australia.
“We studied in Australia, and I was doing engineering. We didn’t study agriculture,” revealed Shafeegu. “The reason we did agriculture was for the challenge – because they said ‘nobody can do this’, so we tried to do it.”
As well as the hydroponic system, Seagull brought in an Australian consultant named Graham Evans who helped to evaluate the business. In his review of the Mafaahi establishment in 2008, Evans praised the island’s move towards a sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural system.
“Changes being made on Mafaahi with the introduction of hydroponics to maximize production with limited resources is commendable. The installation of the very latest solar technology on Mafaahi for pumping water from ground wells has immediate application in many locations throughout the Maldives,” wrote Evans.
In addition to environmental benefits, the effects of the Seagull hydroponics programme can already be seen in the cost of living.
“When we started in 1996, a chilli [was] 6 rufiyaa,” Shafeegu explained. “Now the chilli is around 2 rufiyaa.” Because of these benefits, people are already starting to see the benefits of localised agriculture, he contended.
Water – a precious resource
The only limitation on the potential of hydroponics is water itself, stated Shafeegu.
“We need a lot of water. Now the system we are doing in Mafaahi- we need around 2 thousand tons of water in storage. Because in the rainy season, we get a lot of rain from the roof.”
“If we can desalinate water, it costs a lot of money, but if you can go solar it will be much better.”
Desalination continues to be a huge issue in the Maldives. The lack of fresh drinking water in the country’s 190 inhabited islands – made worse with the contamination of groundwater following the 2004 tsunami – leaves most communities reliant on rainwater and vulnerable to shortages during the dry seasons.
Pioneering attempts to desalinate water using the excess heat from electricity generation have recently been launched in Kaafu atoll, although they remain in their infancy.
“Because we have done 20 years of agriculture, now the island is suffering, so we have to go for another form of irrigation. We put a line, with only a very small amount of water, given just to the roots. Now what we do is we take the pump and put water there, and a lot of water is wasted. So we have to really do a lot of quality control on the water.”
He illustrates the seriousness of this issue with a story about a neighbouring island Thoddoo, and their mis-use of water supplies.
“What has happened to this island is they have done extensive agriculture without scientific methods – what has happened now is the whole water system has gone.”
“They put chemicals in the water, and when you see people there they have white patches on them, from the chemicals – and kidney problems as well. So they are misusing because the demand is so high. And so, it [the environment] is getting destroyed, the control is not there, awareness is not there.”
The future for agriculture
Seagull is currently bidding to extend their lease on Mafaahi, which is due to expire in June 2014.
” Now we are in a very critical situation, and the water is gone now. But we can’t invest in the future, as we are almost at the end of the lease now. I think if we don’t give to us, I don’t know to whom they will give.”
“So I think the only thing is hydroponics – the government has to invest in this,” confirmed Shafeegu.
“If they don’t do that I think we will even lose the backyard farming [a traditional farming practise on local islands]. And we will not have anything to eat. Food security will be finished. Now we have a good food security based on this backyard farming, now I think it’s going to a different level.”
The Maldives has previously been described as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate-change related food security issues, due to its dependence on fish stocks regarded as likely to migrate with changing conditions in the oceans.
“They [Maldivians] will forget. I think what will happen is, they will forget even to grow their own plants. Before they know what to do, food security is a big problem, it will come,” says Shafeegu.
“But I think we can grow enough, if we can plan.”