Growing for the future: Hydroponics in the Maldives

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.”


Economic diversification vital for food and energy security, says government report

The Maldives continues to face huge issues of food security, last year importing 90 percent of all goods consumed, while also being one of the most “oil vulnerable” countries in the world, according to a government report calling for significant economic diversification.

According to the Maldives Economic Diversification Strategy (MEDS), released last week, the nation has become “over-dependent on tourism”, with the industry last year accounting for more than two thirds of the Maldives’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The report concluded that such a reliance on one sector alone had left the country’s economy particularly susceptible to natural disasters and adverse financial conditions.

“The Maldives needs to bridge swiftly the gaps that are emerging from the short-term political aims and the long-term economic goals,” stated the report’s introduction.

“Our vision for the Maldives is to become a high income, resilient, inclusive economy by 2025,” it added.

The MEDS reported that fuel imports last year totaled US$488 million or 22 percent of annual GDP.  Meanwhile, US$389 million was spent bringing food into the country in 2012 – with demand predominantly made up of US$64 million in confectionery and beverages; US$60.1 million in meat, fish and seafood; and US$49.3 million in vegetables, root crops and spices.

The country’s official external debt was also said, on the basis of official figures, to have “increased significantly” to US$846.2 million – 38 percent of GDP – by the end of 2012, from US$ 959.1 million – 43 percent of GDP – in 2011.

Financial challenge

The government earlier this month said it hoped to secure longer-term financing to plug a shortfall in annual revenue that has seen the number of 28-day Treasury Bills (T-bills) sold by the state almost double by July 2013, when compared to the same period last year.

The comments were made just weeks after the Maldives Monetary Authority raised fears over the current “beyond appropriate” levels of government expenditure during 2013.

” Broad-based” economy

In an attempt over the next decade to transform the Maldives into one of Asia’s so-called “miracle economies”, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the MEDS report, compiled by the Ministry of Economic Development, has outlined a ten sector strategy towards making the Maldives a “broad based export driven economy.”

“After having enjoyed rapid economic progress over three decades, our economic conditions changed dramatically following the Indian Ocean tsunami,” stated the report, which calls for a smaller, more prudent government moving forward.

“Since 2005, economic policy making in the Maldives has focused on crisis management. What is needed in the Maldives now is to move away from crisis related adhoc decision making to a clear vision, coherent strategies and coordinated policies.”

The MEDS report contained 10 sector specific plans for development of a more versatile economy. These include:


The government has pledged to boost the importance of transportation services to the economy by increasing their value to US$500 million by 2025 – from US$153 million last year.

According to the report, this focus will be achieved through expanding the capacity of existing transport hubs such as Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) and developing cruise ships terminals and a marina.

Despite this pledge, the government controversially scrapped a US$511 million contract signed under the previous administration with India-based infrastructure group GMR to develop and manage an entirely new airport terminal at INIA.

Earlier this week, Economic Development Minister Ahmed Mohamed was quoted in local media of accusing the former government of working to make the Maldives “an economic slave” to an unspecified foreign company.


In the field of education, the government report has pledged a strategy of trying to develop higher education as a “priority expert sector” by working to transform the Maldives into a destination capable of attracting 15,000 international students a year.


For trading strategies, the MEDS has targeted developing local trade to increase value to US$500 million, from just US$96 million last year, partly through a focus on developing malls, boutique stores and e-shopping.


In tourism, the Maldives will aim to nearly double current income value by 2025 through strategies to diversify into providing meetings, incentives, conferencing, and exhibitions – (MICE) facilities – in addition to wellness tourism and family orientated attractions.

The government has previously expressed a desire to commit to a number of these developments including the expansion of biospheres and developing other “value-adding” concepts via the Maldives’ fourth official tourism master plan, expected to be unveiled later this month.

The MEDS report anticipated that such developments would help increase the economic contribution of tourism to US$1.2 billion by 2025, from around US$555 million in 2012.


The report has also pledged to develop the Maldives as a destination for international healthcare services via measures such as creating a medical college and a teaching hospital.

In June, the Ministry of Health identified current salary levels and staff safety as the key issues driving “shortages” in the number of trained medical staff coming from abroad to work at under-skilled hospitals in the Maldives.

Financial services

MEDS also expressed a desire to increase the financial service industry’s value to US$250 million by 2025 through the development of legal reforms and wider efforts to attract international banks to the Maldives.

The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) argued in July that the country’s politicians had done little to address an ongoing shortage of US dollars and a lack of investment banking opportunities and arbitration legislation in the country.


The report pledges a strategy of increasing communication service value to US$500 million by 2025 – from US$159 million last year – by pursuing the development of IT parks in the nation as well as providing resorts specifically for research sabbaticals.


The MEDS also pledged to facilitate a means of boosting agricultural production to a value of US$ 150 million by 2025.

Campaigning back in May for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), former President Mohamed Nasheed unveiled an election strategy on the island of Kulhudhufushi in Haa Dhaal Atoll, that he claimed could lead the country to produce about 44 percent of the foodstuffs currently being imported into the country.


Maldives appeals to Sri Lanka for food security

Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim has appealed to the Sri Lankan government for assistance with agriculture and food security, the office of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said.

In a statement, the Sri Lankan government said “Nazim described to the President some of the hardships experienced by the Maldivian population due to inadequate supplies and high prices of some agricultural products such as rice and certain vegetables. Nazim also indicated that, given the good bilateral ties between the two countries, it might be useful to conduct exchange programs for Maldivian agriculturalists to learn from Sri Lankan experts.”

According to the statement, President Rajapaksa indicated that “Sri Lanka may be able to assist Maldives meet their rice requirement”, but “also urged the Maldivian government to encourage the people to engage in home gardening that could help families address their individual food needs.”


Maldives world’s most vulnerable country to climate-change related impacts on food security

The Maldives is the world’s most vulnerable country to the food-security related impacts of climate change, a new report has found.

According to ‘Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World’, produced by global ocean protection NGO Oceana, the Maldives ranks alongside Togo and Comoros as the most vulnerable to climate-change related food security threats, due to its near total reliance on fish for protein.

The rankings were calculated by combining each nation’s exposure to climate change and ocean acidification, dependence on and consumption of fish and seafood, and level of adaptive capacity based on socioeconomic factors.

“Many of the high-ranking nations based on climate change indicators are located in the tropics and low latitudes,” the report notes.

“This reflects the general trend that fish species are predicted to be migrating toward the poles as water temperatures continue to rise. Tropical countries are the most dependent on coral reef fisheries which are severely threatened.

“Island and coastal nations depend more heavily on fish for protein, especially the poorest nations, increasing their vulnerability. Many of the poorest places are already struggling with hunger issues which will be made worse with high population growth rates and limited additional options for food.”

Half the protein consumed in the Maldives is derived from fish, the report observed, and besides providing direct food protein, countries such as the Maldives also benefited from marine tourism jobs associated with coral reefs and marine life.

“This multi-billion dollar industry could also be threatened by climate change. Therefore, further assessments should incorporate the risks to food security that come from losses in income due to the disappearance of fisheries and tourism related jobs. Local changes to marine resources from ocean acidification and climate change could ripple up through the global economy,” the report found.

‘So long and thanks for all the fish’

Minivan News has earlier reported on the decline of the fishing industry in the Maldives due to an array of factors, notably high-tech and efficient purse seiner vessels from other nations ringing the country’s exclusive economic zone. The traditional – and sustainable – pole and line method used by Maldivian fishermen has left them unable to compete with GPS enabled, sonar-equipped fish aggregation devices of these vessels.

Local fisheries have also been affected by market impacts, particularly the move by major fisheries companies in the Maldives to ship tuna to Thailand for canning and processing despite the presence of local factories – many tins sold locally in shops now have ‘packed in Thailand’ on the label.

Former head of the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), Adhil Saleem, previously informed Minivan News that changing sea surface temperatures due to climate change were also driving fish deeper, reducing the stocks within reach of the traditional pole and line method.

“Our [pole and line] method only works near the surface,” he said. “But with changes in weather and sea temperature, fish will not surface.”

According to figures from the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA), tuna fishing is the second largest export earner at US$52 million and the country’s largest employer at 40 percent, but in the last three years contributed only 2 percent of the country’s GDP, dwarfed by the tourism industry. Catches meanwhile declined eight percent in 2011.


Giant onions link climate change to food security

Climate change activists held an exhibition depicting giant onions on Saturday to highlight the impact of climate change on food security in the Maldives.

Co-founder of the Maldivian Youth Climate Network, Aisha Niyaz, said extreme weather events were becoming increasingly frequent and severe all over the planet due to climate change.

With the Maldives dependent on imports for 90 percent of its food, the country remained vulnerable to food price fluctuations when extreme weather events decreased crop yields in other parts of the world.

The onions symbolised the dramatic increase in onion prices in 2010 and 2011 after flash flooding caused extensive damage to onion farms in India. The price of onions throughout the country jumped from Rf 12 (US$ 0.8) to Rf 25 (US$ 1.6) Aisha said.

“It’s not just sea-level rise or erosion that we should be worried about. Climate change has a huge impact on Maldives’ food security,” Aisha said.

Only 10 percent of land in the Maldives was suitable for agriculture in the Maldives, Aisha noted and expressed concern over the lack of storage facilities for food in the Maldives. The Maldives only had storage capacity to store three months-worth of food, she said.

“We are very concerned about food security in the Maldives. Climate change is not something that is to happen in the distant future. We are feeling the effects of it even today,” she added.

The art exhibition at artificial beach was part of a world-wide campaign led by American-based global environmental organization as part of its “Connect the dots” campaign.

The campaign has rallied communities from 188 countries around the world, celebrating May 5 as a global “Climate Impacts Day” to highlight the connections between climate change and extreme weather events. advocates for carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to be reduced from its current level of 392 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm to preserve the plant. “350 means climate safety,” the organisation said on its website.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) youth wing members also held an event to mark Climate Impacts Day, wading into Malé city’s lagoon to call attention to flooding in the city due to high tides. The campaigners also called for democracy to be reinstated to the Maldives.

The MDP alleges the transfer of power on February 7 was a coup d’état and have called for fresh elections.

“On May 5, Maldives experienced the biggest full moon of the year, and the highest tide of the year. This led to flooding in some areas, especially on the eastern side of Malé near the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital,” MDP youth wing president Aminath Shauna said.

“We are vulnerable to flooding even from a full moon. So we wanted to call attention to how vulnerable the Maldives is to climate change and associated sea-level rises,” she said.

“Most importantly, if there is no democracy, we cannot address larger issues such as climate change,” she added. Shauna was the former administration’s focal point for United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC).

Shaviyani Atoll Kandhitheemu islanders also held a rally on its beach to emphasize Maldives’ vulnerability to sea level rise.

In 2009, former President Mohamed Nasheed led an underwater cabinet meeting calling for carbon dioxide levels to be lowered to 350ppm.